Taking Surveillance Video to the People in Pennsylvania

Developer makes streets' surveillance cameras available over Web in hopes to deter crime


Live - via the Internet - it's Saturday night on the streets of Norristown.

Anyone with know-how and a computer can log on to http://68.42.9.92 and see West Marshall Street through the electronic eye of the video cameras that developer David M. Sereny has installed there.

Sereny is trying to create a vibrant, mostly Mexican shopping district along the corridor from Markley Street to Haws Avenue.

To be successful, however, it must be safe, he said.

"As a developer, I can make the street look like Disney World," Sereny said.

"But if I can't change the social ills of the people who hang here, if I can't protect the people who come here and have shops here, I can't promote this as a development."

Sereny posted the tapes online recently to dramatize what he called a need for increased police patrols.

The fledgling Mexican merchants and their patrons are prey for criminals who rob and beat them, Sereny said. He wants to put a stop to that.

Norristown Police Chief Russell J. Bono said last week he agrees with Sereny that Mexicans tend to be the victims of street crime and that more patrols are needed.

"Mr. Sereny has some very legitimate concerns, and I share his concerns," Bono said. "I would like nothing better than to patrol that strip 16 to 24 hours a day, but currently that's not possible."

Instead, Bono said, he's assigned a Norristown police officer and state trooper to patrol together in the West Marshall corridor and four other locations two nights a week for four hours.

"We're doing the best we can," Bono said of the added patrols called Operation Trigger Lock.

The chief said Sereny's tapes are a useful tool for investigators; a videotape from a Sereny camera is expected to be viewed in court as soon as next week.

The surveillance system was started with a few cameras in March 2003 and now consists of 32 cameras made by Integral Systems, of California. The system cost Sereny $100,000, and each camera is worth $6,000, he said.

Some are in plain sight above intersections like Astor and West Marshall Streets; others are mounted in light fixtures on rooftops.

They stream video without sound into two digital systems that Sereny can monitor from home or his office at 405 W. Marshall St.

One of these - the one posted online - captures images from afar; the other can zoom in on faces, but that one isn't available for public viewing, Sereny said.

Nonetheless, Sereny said, he has had 150 e-mailed requests from the public for the Web site address where the videotape can be seen. About 400 people have viewed it; the reviews are mixed.

Larry Hollander, owner-operator of Larry's Thrifty Shoppe at 406 W. Marshall St., said knowing the cameras are recording street life gives merchants a feeling of security.

"As far as the street goes, it's great," said Hollander, who recently celebrated his 20th year on West Marshall Street. "If something does happen, Dave can look it up and maybe find the people who did it."

But barbershop owner Dewitt Poindexter bridled against the surveillance, especially the fact that people outside the area can call up the images on computer screens, which he said constitutes voyeurism.

"I guess it's just another form of entertainment on the Internet," said the barber, who has owned Poindexters Barber Shop, 402 W. Marshall St., for 15 years. "People from other areas are looking at what goes on here, like another TV reality show."

Sereny denied emphatically that that was his intent.

"I do appreciate what he has to say," Sereny said of Poindexter. "You can't make out faces. You just see activities, an overview of people gathering. We don't give people anything that would be considered voyeurism."

Some images are dramatic, especially two recent sequences shown by Sereny:

On May 19, the camera captured a late-afternoon stabbing. One young man approached another, and the two argued before one stabbed the other five times. The assailant left, while the victim looked down at his injuries in disbelief before staggering off camera.

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