Cameras rolling to catch criminals

Police spy trailer attracts movie buffs, repels drug dealers

`Raises privacy concerns'

January 02, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The newest high-tech vehicle that Baltimore police are using to fight crime looks like a movie-making truck. But actors need not apply.

Not that it's stopping would-be thespians from trying. The trailer, equipped with long-range cameras that spy on drug dealers, has inadvertently put out a casting call on the street, with people approaching police officers and asking for jobs in the movies.

"They all wanted to be extras. Some said they had past experience in their school plays," said Detective Tyrone Tillery of the department's fledgling Technical Assistance Response Unit. "We were talking about putting a big `HBO' [banner] outside the trailer."

The trailer is part of a new Baltimore police effort to use technology to reduce crime in rough neighborhoods. On loan from California-based NS Microwave for the next two months, the trailer costs about $150,000. It has two cameras that can rise about 40 feet in the air, rotate in circles and zoom in on objects as far as 15 blocks away.

Despite the confusion about the trailer's purpose, drug dealers seemed to figure it out. And that's the point, police said.

"It's supposed to be conspicuous," said John V. Pignataro, who heads the 10-member technical unit. "People can [now] walk down the block. It gives us more coverage with less people."

Besides the cameras, the NS Microwave trailer has an empty truck bed, large booms, generators and a small room measuring 6 by 8 feet crammed with televisions, computers and just enough space for three folding chairs and police officers.

The trailer is not designed for stealth operations. Its generators make loud whirling noises, a large blue tarp covers its generators and its adjustable antenna is visible from blocks away.

But even in plain sight, it keeps the local residents puzzled. Recently, James Spencer was walking along Rutland Avenue in East Baltimore when he looked quizzically at the 27-foot-long trailer.

"Someone said they were filming a movie, straight up," said Spencer, 48. "That's what I heard."

Baltimore police officials say they plan on buying at least one of these high-tech surveillance trailers and are going to test others. In a few weeks, the department expects to get another loaner - this time a similar trailer from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Both trailers will be capable of receiving signals from and monitoring video cameras at several spots in the city.

The trailer won't stay at Rutland and Lanvale forever. And residents believe they know what will happen when it leaves.

The drug dealers "will be back the same day," said Terrell Lee, 17, who lives down the street.

Police plan to move the trailer - and the DEA's - throughout the city, though they have no concrete plans on how or where to deploy it.

The trailer has brought some criticism from civil liberties groups, worried the cameras could invade privacy.

"What does the Baltimore Police Department do once it develops all the data through the use of its high-tech trailer," said Dwight Sullivan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland. "I don't know whether the Police Department has answered that question yet. ... This raises privacy concerns."

Police say they are concentrating on those committing crimes, not innocent people.

The other afternoon, the area around Rutland Avenue and Lanvale Street was quiet and empty, as police officers operated the trailer's cameras.

They have spent much of the past few days troubleshooting and making sure the equipment works as advertised.

But they still were able to spy on suspected drug dealers about a block and a half away on Lanvale Street. There, a man in a beige jacket and another in a red jacket were directing people down an alley.

Tillery and Detective Sean Mayo, an undercover narcotics officer, said the men were lookouts in a drug ring, sending potential buyers to purchase drugs.

"I want that guy bad," Mayo said of the man in the beige jacket.

"They know we're here and probably think they're safe using the alley," Tillery said, as he moved a computer mouse and adjusted the angle of a camera.

But after a few hours, the suspected dealers vanished - before police could send a team of detectives into the alley.

"They closed up shop," Tillery said.

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