Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sometimes known as the "Venice of America" because of its expansive and intricate canal system, had a problem – with 165,000 residents, the city couldn’t command a large police force. Yet the city is also a major tourist destination with an estimated 10 million visitors passing through every year. Recently city officials hit upon an idea of mounting a few cameras on an armored vehicle and deploying it in crime-prone areas throughout the city. Christened “The Peacemaker” the mobile video surveillance vehicle is a result of a strategic partnership of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department (FLPD) and Brink's, the security services company.

The idea isn’t new – several police departments in the U.S. have also adopted mobile video surveillance. But a dramatic drop in Fort Lauderdale’s crime rate following the first few months of the Peacemaker’s deployment may explain why mobile video surveillance is increasingly emerging as a preferred tool for public safety and community protection for police departments nationwide.

After the vehicle was acquired from Brink's, the FLPD outfitted it with surveillance equipment capable of recording footage 24/7. The Peacemaker had been operational since August 2011. A second Peacemaker was deployed in December last year.

“The initial purpose of the Peacemaker was to enhance police presence in high-crime areas and use it as an addition to our fleet of patrol vehicles that can only drive through neighborhoods,” said Travis Mandell, FLPD spokesperson and the detective in charge of this operation.

“But when we started stationing the Peacemaker in problem areas, we realized that the vehicle was achieving remarkable results; it was deterring crimes so efficiently that within a few days of deployment, crimes rates started dropping dramatically,” he says.

Mandell pointed to “Operation Auto Shield”, an operation launched last September that aimed to combat vehicle burglaries occurring in the south side of Fort Lauderdale.

In this operation, after identifying the areas — such as city parks, shopping malls, gas stations and cemeteries — which were the high-target areas for burglars, the FLPD deployed the Peacemaker and rotated it within the target areas to capture footage of criminal activity. Using this footage, undercover personnel were then able to identify and nab the criminals.

“The beautiful thing about the Peacemaker is that it is capable of 24-hour surveillance, 7 days a week,” Mandell said. “This form of surveillance is quite unlike surveillance by deploying police officers physically where the officers have to constantly attend to calls. When they have to respond to a call, they might have to leave an area even it is a hot spot area.”

Since the Peacemakers are armored trucks, they’re fortified against vandalism and criminal attempts to thwart surveillance, added Mandell.

Undoubtedly the Peacemaker is brazen, “but it is not a covert operation,” said Mandell.

“The vehicles are clearly marked and we do not peer into homes,” Mandell said. “We are not here to violate people’s constitutional rights. All we are doing is trying to curb some of the crime trends through deterring criminals and making them think twice before they commit a crime.”

“Besides, [very often] the communities are the ones who want it and the vehicle is deployed only when a community so desires,” he added.

In early January, for instance, the Peacemaker was deployed at an empty lot in the 1100 block of Northwest Fifth Court after neighbors complained of several residential burglaries.

“Once deployed, the burglaries dropped to nothing, and people in the community were ecstatic to see the vehicle; they were saddened when it left,” Mandell said.

In November last year, the FLPD, after receiving numerous complaints from the Dorsey Riverbend Civic Association regarding narcotic sales and prostitution, deployed the Peacemaker in the community for a week, which led to the arrest of 10 individuals for selling drugs.

“We’re ecstatic that the city is bringing in new technology and equipment to prevent crime. Dorsey Riverbend really appreciates the changes after the last two years and is really happy with the city,” said LaRhonda Ware, president of the Dorsey Riverbend Civic Association.

Not everyone is as pleased with the Peacemaker as Mandell and Ware. In Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere, mobile surveillance deployments have faced the protests of those who believe them to be a violation of privacy.

Other Deployments of In-Vehicle Cameras by U.S. Police Departments

  • A Brink’s armored truck has been the choice for the police department in Peoria, Ill.. There the police department outfitted an old Brink’s truck with surveillance cameras, and dubbed it the “Armadillo.” Like Fort Lauderdale, Peoria PD claims that it has worked so well for them that they were inspired to add one more called the “Armadillo Two.”
  • The police department of Green Bay, Wis., was influenced by the Armadillo and deployed its own version of an armored truck outfitted with video surveillance equipment
  • Lafayette, La., police have followed suit with its “Crime Suppression Surveillance Vehicle,” also called the Armadillo.
  • The St. Louis Metro Police Department has gone a step further. Its armored car — also obtained from Brink’s — is outfitted with surveillance equipment and upgraded with features like ballistic headlights. This vehicle is reportedly capable of providing 360-degree surveillance of multiple square blocks in real time.

 

In Ottumwa, Iowa, for instance, where mobile video surveillance was first deployed in 2011, concerned residents who were uncomfortable about cameras snooping into their neighborhood voiced their complaints.

Similarly a Fort Lauderdale resident complained about victimization after the FLPD stationed The Peacemaker in front of her motel. The FLPD said it suspected the motel was being used for prostitution.

Critics add that placing obvious surveillance equipments right outside a suspect’s premise can attract undue attention and suspicion from the neighborhood even before any investigation or prosecution takes place.

Mobile video surveillance, when targeted at an individual or at an individual’s premises, can destroy reputations or lead to rejection from a community, critics say.

Detective Mandell, though, is undaunted.

“People who do not like the Peacemaker are usually those who commit crime,” he said. “For us, we see it as a dramatic tool that not only deters crime but also helps us in removing criminals off the streets. We have experienced an increase in community support toward this method of surveillance too. So it is a win-win,” Mandell said.

The FLPD is in fact is already mulling increasing the Peacemaker fleet from the current two vehicles.

“But those are just plans; nothing has been set in stone yet,” he added.

Indrajit Basu Indrajit Basu  |  Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.