Cooling High Crime Hotspots with Mobile Surveillance Technology

How Glenwood Police Department uses portable video camera platform as roving security zone

Like many small town police departments seeking to maintain neighborhood safety, the Village of Glenwood, Ill., needed to squeeze every ounce of value from its law enforcement tools. Budget-wise, a city-wide surveillance solution was out of the question. The chief of police really wanted a way to monitor neighborhood hotspots without monopolizing all of his department’s resources.

He spotted the perfect solution while attending a security conference with the mayor and village manager: a trailered surveillance unit called SkyWatch. As a portable video camera platform, SkyWatch could easily transport from one problem area to another. The chief began envisioning how technology could deter crime in his community.

“We have network video cameras at police headquarters and the Village Hall, the public works and the senior center, but none in the neighborhoods,” said Demetrius Cook, chief of police for the Village of Glenwood.

Like many communities, Glenwood has traditional trouble spots: a park where teenagers congregate and cause disturbances, a few houses with narcotics issues, and a rash of neighborhood burglaries. With a portable SkyWatch, the Glenwood Police Department could move an extra set of eyes around the village wherever and whenever it was needed.

Setting Up Surveillance on the Fly

SkyWatch is the brainchild of Critical Technology Solutions, an Illinois-based security integrator. The battery-powered unit consists of a platform containing an array of HDTV-quality, network cameras elevated on a 30-foot telescoping mast, to create a 360° view of the surrounding area. The video is stored on a server housed in the compact chassis of the unit and controlled by a Milestone XProtect video management system.

In addition, high-powered transmitters allow the video to be streamed wirelessly to designated devices, such as authorized laptops and officer iPads, as well as simultaneously to the video monitoring station at police headquarters.

“There are similar mobile surveillance units out in the market, but what separates SkyWatch is that it uses completely digital, IP-based technology and can be controlled remotely so that police manpower can be maximized where needed,” said Don Peters, president of Critical Technology Solutions. “The image quality is tremendous; the software is intuitive and intelligent; and the system is fully self-sufficient and secure.”

To help Glenwood PD carry out overt and covert surveillance strategies, Critical Technology Solutions customized the unit by mounting four different Axis network cameras onto the mast. A 720p and a 1080p network camera, both HDTV-quality with PTZ, operate on guard tour and auto-tracking mode provides a 360° endless pan of the area, while a vandal-resistant outdoor-rated fixed dome camera with Lightfinder technology offers true color fidelity, even in near-dark light. An HDTV-quality fixed dome camera also provides an overview of the trailer itself to prevent vandalism to the unit.

Police lights mounted above the mobile unit can be turned on and off with a keychain remote or over the Internet, depending on need for deterrence or covert opperations. Glenwood PD’s unit is equipped with an optional, built-in generator to augment the standard, six-day battery charge and provide more flexibility and duration. The trailer also contains a siren and public address system, so police can warn away suspicious individuals.

“We watch the pattern of incidents taking place throughout the village,” Cook said. “If we think we can make some headway by moving the SkyWatch unit to that location, that’s what we do.” According to Cook, it’s just a matter of hooking the trailer to his police vehicle and towing it to a new location. He gets the unit up and running in about five minutes.

“It’s the most viable and cost-effective alternative to a city-wide solution I’ve seen,” Cook said. “Sky- Watch can cover a couple of blocks in all four directions at the same time, which is more than a single officer in a police car can do.”

LENDing a Helping Hand TO Retailers

The first test for SkyWatch’s abilities came in response to the local Walmart’s request for help during the holidays, due to a rash of armed robberies at several neighboring community stores.

Before deploying SkyWatch, Chief Cook said, “we received an anonymous tip that there was a robbery taking place at our own Walmart. We dispatched several patrol cars to the store, only to find out that the phone call was a hoax.”

Cook thinks it could have been potential robbers checking out the police department’s response time.

The chief later towed the surveillance trailer to the Walmart as visual deterrence, programming the cameras to make a sweeping tour of the main entrance and zoom out to include the onsite gas station and parking lot.

“We kept it there for two and half months,” Cook said. “We didn’t have a single robbery there in all that time and theft inside went way down because the Axis cameras were capturing people coming in and out of the store.”

According to the chief, even though Walmart has a camera system inside the store, the PD’s mobile unit provided more vivid images.

“They were so happy with the results that they want the unit back there this Christmas season,” Cook said.

Improving Neighborhood Quality of Life

The police chief meets frequently with homeowner associations to pinpoint sites that need extra surveillance.

“It’s not always a crime issue,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a quality of life issue.”

One place with recurring problems was Hickory Glen Park. With no surveillance cameras or adult supervision, dozens of teens took over the playground and made it their daily hangout, which made it an undesirable place for parents to take their children.

With the mobile surveillance unit in the park, the fighting, gambling and antisocial behavior came to a halt.

“We got a lot of praise from the neighbors who border the park when we set up the camera system,” Cook said. “In fact, they were actually upset when I moved the system [to the strip mall].”

There was some push back from a liquor store owner when SkyWatch was parked in the strip mall, but soon the owner soon recognized how the camera system deterred rowdy patrons.

Cook said the system was also instrumental in catching graffiti artists defacing the back wall of the mall.“We fully extended the mast to raise the cameras high enough to view the back lot and kept the lights off to keep the operation covert,” the chief said. “After a couple of days at the location, the police were able to apprehend the culprits.”

To address privacy concerns from area residents when SkyWatch appeared in their neighborhoods, Cook invokes the system’s privacy mask—which blocks out views into homeowner’s windows—and had actually shown residents the camera views on his laptop.

Since its initial rollout, the mobile surveillance unit continues to hear kudos from the community for helping the police shut down drug houses, prevent gang retaliations and maintain a family-friendly atmosphere at the Fourth of July community celebration.

Sharing Technology with Neighboring Communities

The Glenwood Police Department works closely with neighboring law enforcement agencies. For instance, the Glenwood PD doesn’t have a K-9 unit, but neighboring Lynwood does.

“If we have to search for a missing child or search for drugs, all we need to do is make a phone call, and they show up with their dog,” Cook said.

Conversely, when the neighboring community of Homewood needed Glenwood’s portable SkyWatch system for temporary surveillance, Chief Cook hooked the trailer to his police vehicle, towed it out to their venue, gave them a quick lesson on how to use the system and lent them his laptop to monitor the cameras.

“We’ve been experiencing an increase in handgun violence in the Chicago area of late,” Cook said. “This portable tool is a costeffective way to expand our surveillance coverage and ensure our neighborhoods that we’re looking out for their safety.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Security Today.

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