St. Petersburg police's newest surveillance vehicle ditches covertness

ST. PETERSBURG — Police departments usually aren't interested in drawing attention to the vehicles they use to monitor crime suspects.

The goal: Be bland and blend in.

That's what makes the St. Petersburg Police Department's newest surveillance truck stick out so much.

It's large, lime green and has two giant eyeballs on its side underneath the ominous phrase, "We are watching …"

Discreet, it is not.

"Our purpose with this thing is to be very overt," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "We want people to see it."

It will start showing up around the city soon.

The concept is this: Authorities will park the armored truck in a neighborhood or crime hot spot and leave it there for up to 48 hours. It will be recording that whole time.

The goal, Harmon said, will be to send a message and displace, if not eliminate, the crime in that area.

The city got the truck for $1 from Brinks, Harmon said. Drawing money from the city's forfeiture fund, the agency spent about $12,000 hardening the vehicle and $18,000 to outfit it with 360 degrees of camera equipment.

"The real positive for me is its visibility," Harmon said.

The truck is being debuted as city leaders are grappling with another type of surveillance.

The city bought 26 powerful security cameras for the Republican National Convention in August. Now they have to decide what to do with them.

But despite concerns about where those cameras would go and how they would be used, city leaders seemed fine — even enthused — about using the truck as a new crime-fighting tool at a recent meeting.

"I think it's a good start," said City Council member Wengay Newton.

Newton and others on the council have campaigned for years to put cameras in high-crime neighborhoods where drug dealing and prostitution are blatant. People in those areas need to know authorities are watching, they said.

"Privacy … is a big issue for all of us," Mayor Bill Foster said. "But I think you'd have to be a real idiot to deal your drugs in front of this thing."

Harmon said recordings will be kept for about 30 days. The truck "may or may not be" manned, he said.

He also left open the possibility that it could be used in other ways, either for education purposes or perhaps crowd control.

The department recently tested the truck, parking it at Williams Park this week, and at First Avenue S and 34th Street last week.

Harmon said he's also heard Kenwood and areas along Central Avenue are interested in having the truck park there. The department plans to come up with its own list of hot spots as well.

"We're still in the infancy with this," he said. "We're still looking at how we're going to deploy it and where."

Harmon said the truck has been in the works for more than a year. He said he heard about a law enforcement agency out West doing the same thing, and wanted to try it in St. Petersburg.

Two teens from the Childs Park recreation center collaborated on the design, winning a contest that drew hundreds of entries. The pair were presented with iPods for their effort this week.

"They came up with the eye concept," said Rob Norton, a supervisor for the city's Teens, Arts, Sports and Cultural Opportunities program. "We built it into a strong industrial theme."

Harmon said he's happy with it.

"This is … in your face," he said. "It's very out there. Not only the bad people can see it, but the good people will as well."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

St. Petersburg police's newest surveillance vehicle ditches covertness 11/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 23, 2012 9:48pm]

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