Friday, February 2, 1996
Pole cameras can't compete with this crew

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Phil Heimlich wants to fight downtown crime with a video camera. Make that 15 cameras. Each one mounted to a light pole. With a total price tag of $55,000.

City council's crime dog contends a surveillance system, with video screens monitored by a trained civilian, will help ''downtown compete with suburban shopping malls who provide security with those very same kind of cameras.

''This is common sense good government,'' he insists, ''which uses the limited resources we have as wisely as possible.''

Sounds nice. As long as Cincinnati's criminals restrict themselves to those 15 spots downtown.

But crooks tend to be more mobile and are notoriously camera-shy. They can go one block over and the cameras will never catch them doing their dirty work.

That's just one thing I learned from talking to someone who belongs to a little-known team of citizens that already does - for free - what Mr. Heimlich wants to spend $55,000 on.

The Volunteer Surveillance Team is a 62-member, all-volunteer force that has been in place around Cincinnati inside empty buildings, on rooftops and in parking lots since 1993. Sponsored and trained for 16 hours by the police, each team member is taught to observe criminal behavior and call the real cops on a two-way radio when someone spots trouble.

The team has helped put lawbreakers behind bars for a medley of crimes from vandalism to drug dealing.

And, it hasn't cost the city a dime.

Even better, it's highly mobile.

''We go where the criminals are,'' says Robert E. Manley, a downtown resident, attorney and charter member of the surveillance team.

Binoculars at the ready, he and his teammates are on call to work free, four-hour shifts, night and day, with the permission and encouragement of the police to nab crooks throughout the city.

In his years on the team, Mr. Manley has been on the lookout for crime from atop some of the best buildings in town. From his vantage points, he has witnessed scenes that could fit into episodes of NYPD Blue.

The Smash & Grab Gang - ''They'd smash store windows downtown and grab the merchandise. Then drive off. We spotted a vehicle one night that had slowed to a stop and let out three people but kept its motor running. We used our radios to alert the police to move in but not be seen.

''They must have had a police scanner in that car. Because, when our alert went out, the driver called the three occupants back. But we got the license plate number and they were arrested for having stolen property. We would have liked to have caught them in the act. That gets the old adrenaline pumping. But that arrest stopped the smash and grab spree.''

Drug Dealer Gridlock - ''One night after only two hours, our four-person team caused so many arrests to be made for drug dealing in a district, the team was sent home early. The police were so backed up with paperwork, they couldn't process the criminals fast enough.''

He or She - ''On a slow night, when nothing was going on downtown and we were getting bored - which was good because there was no crime - we noticed a gay bar was having a drag queen show. At intermission, men were coming out dressed as women. A woman on our surveillance team said, 'My oh my, I didn't know men could look that good.' ''

This is what he hasn't seen: Kissing.

No public displays of affection?

''None. I've seen people walking close together. But never kissing.''

Nevertheless, he intends to keep on looking. No camera is going to put his team out of business.

''There are always places where there's a temporary influx of crime,'' Mr. Manley explains. ''We can go where cameras can't.

''Then, after a few days the criminals notice they're getting arrested and they go away.''

Where to?

''I can tell you one thing, they don't go to church.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.