Residents in two Norfolk neighborhoods advocate for safety measures like installing blue-light call boxes

When it comes to reducing crime, residents of two Norfolk public housing communities say adding more surveillance just won’t cut it.

So they’re asking city officials to consider alternatives.

In Young Terrace and Calvert Square, some say the approach to crime prevention is not working, and are pushing for new ways to keep their neighborhoods safe.

New Virginia Majority — a group that aims to help communities of color with issues such as housing and criminal justice — and residents have come together to advocate for several changes. Those include installing blue-light emergency phone towers, which allow anyone to press a button and call for emergency services.

More than 130 residents of the two public housing communities signed a petition presented to the Norfolk City Council and Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The outlined changes, they say, will be more effective than added surveillance.

“If you look in the context of cameras and low-income Black communities to solve crime, but never solve crime, they only increase over-policing,” New Virginia Majority organizer Monét Johnson said. She added that at this point, the community will continue to push for more options to protect themselves that do not involve more surveillance.

The list of resolutions calls for the purchase and installation of at least ten non-camera emergency call towers in Young Terrace and Calvert Square, a pause on all current plans to install more cameras in both communities, the initiation of a large-scale effort to inform community members where current cameras are and why they were placed there, and faster responses to emergency situations along with a 72-hour turnaround for non-emergency requests.

Johnson said this would be especially helpful for those who may not have access to a phone, or for residents who want to anonymously alert police of an emergency in real time.

The resolution for blue-light towers includes creating a program in which residents can be trained or certified in maintenance and repair skills for the call boxes. It also calls for the city to confirm a maintenance-request receipt by email or text to verify the time and date the request was made. Advocates of the call boxes say this could provide job training for community members and would allow the process to repair the towers to be streamlined.

Zenobia Wilson, who lived at Tidewater Gardens in the St. Paul’s area before moving across the Elizabeth River to Diggs Town near Campostella, said installing blue-light call boxes would give residents another option for instant communication with emergency services. Cameras or license-plate readers only help with investigations after a crime has been committed, she said — not necessarily helping when someone is in danger at that moment.

“(The community) needs something that’s instant and that’s going to help immediately,” she said. “Even if I’m scared to talk to police, we need something that’s going to call them immediately — not just have them push a button and make a noise, and they never come. We need them to actually be responsive and come when it really happens, not 30 minutes later, after the situation dies down.”

Wilson said she often thinks of her teenage daughter, who walks to and from school, and her safety. Wilson said that for many parents, call towers could add an extra sense of security.

“She walks with her friends, and every day, I call her to make sure she made it to the house, because there’s no telling when something is going to happen,” she said. “You definitely need it for kids like that. If something goes down and these kids don’t have their phones and they’re walking home, they need to be able to call somebody to help them.”

According to a city spokesperson, Norfolk has not placed blue-light call boxes in any residential neighborhoods. Norfolk police deferred all questions to the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which did not respond to a request for comment.

In January, several community members spoke before the City Council about the resolutions, emphasizing that current public safety measures are not working. They said trying something new to protect neighbors would be better than continuing efforts that aren’t effective.

“Let’s maybe try to use the money on something that could possibly work, and at the very least show the community you’re willing to do anything to protect it,” Johnson said.

Eliza Noe,