Kevin Riordan: 'Camden Camera' surveillance system has some residents smiling

Posted: February 14, 2012

Worried the "Camden Camera" surveillance system might violate the rights of innocent visitors to the city's drug-plagued neighborhoods?

Talk to Laura Sánchez.

"Twenty years ago, I would have been on the civil liberties side, but now I think the [surveillance] is absolutely wonderful," says Sánchez, the special-projects coordinator for Camden's Area Health Education Center.

Beginning this week, notices will be mailed to owners of vehicles caught by the city's Eye in the Sky network. The missives are not arrest warrants, but warnings designed to encourage drug buyers to get help - and get out of town.

"People who live in the city have rights, too," says Sánchez, who lives in Fairview with her husband and daughter. "We have a right not to be worried about a drug trade fueled by people from the suburbs. I'm sick of it."

Data collected during the program's first four weeks indicate that 90 percent of the 624 "suspicious" vehicles seen at one North Camden intersection were registered to suburban addresses.

"It seems that people from the suburbs love to point their finger at Camden," longtime Fairview resident Fran Dyson says. "It's ironic that 90 percent of the buyers are from the suburbs."

She's right: A big chunk of the traffic at one of the arguably most dangerous corners in "C-town" - Sixth and York - came from places such as Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel, and Deptford. And Blackwood, Westville, and Sicklerville.

There's no reason to think the statistics are substantially different at the other 'stop-n-cop' corners in other neighborhoods, particularly those close to I-676 and Route 130.

Now, let's pause and point out that 10 percent of the customers whose license tags showed up at that particularly hot corner were linked to owners living in Camden zip codes. Drug "sets" ply their trade in every neighborhood, and the community bears some responsibility.

But despite its reputation, the city is home to many thousands of people who would never think of taking drugs, yet find themselves forced to live with the often-bloody ramifications of other people's addictions.

"My 10-year-old daughter doesn't understand why I won't let her walk two blocks from our house. But people are being held up in broad daylight," Sánchez says. "People have been shot in Yorkship Square."

Lifelong city resident Lillian Ubarry lives near the Cramer Hill intersection where beloved bodega owner Deogones Miguel Almonte was gunned down Dec. 5.

"Every day I go by that store, and every day it breaks my heart," says Ubarry, 56, outreach coordinator for the Camden County Cancer Screening Project.

"I have never been scared like I'm scared now, and it's a horrible thing. I love my home. I have a beautiful home. But you begin to feel like you have to leave."

Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, says the focus has hardly shifted from sellers to buyers.

"The dealers are still being targeted," he says. "We're not criminalizing anyone. The warnings are a tool.

"We're trying to find a way to change people's behavior, to encourage them to deal with a problem. I don't think anyone imagines this is going to shut down all the drug corners."

That's no reason not to try, says Sánchez, who 20 years ago stood with Ubarry and other activists, leafleting apparent drug buyers as they entered North Camden.

"I don't know if we ever deterred anybody, but we were out there," she says.

Adds Ubarry, "Sometimes we saw them turn around."


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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