Tuesday, June 17, 2003

They log on, look out with Web crime cams

Citizens on cyber patrol

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In the new world of crime-fighting, it's not Big Brother watching. It's your neighbors on their computers.

Call it e-surveillance. Or citizens on cyber patrol. But with new wireless "crime cams" cropping up around Cincinnati, more people are helping fight crime with a click of a mouse.

They log on, watch and call 911. And all the video is archived, allowing police to come back later for evidence.

It's the perfect way, proponents say, for more residents to more easily get involved, stay out of sight and still help police.

"The community's really screaming for safety," said Sean Darks, half the two-man team promoting CityWatcher.com. "This is a way to do that quickly. What's not to like about that?"

Victoria Lore, who asked Darks and Moore for a demo camera after hearing about them at a police/community meeting, logs on every day in the apartment above her body-piercing business in Corryville.

She can see all around the intersection of Vine and Charlton streets. She watches awhile, aiming the camera at anything interesting in the area, toward Bogart's, for example, if there's a big crowd.

The camera did not catch Councilman Jim Tarbell being assaulted Sunday night. That happened a little out of range.

But in the two months it has been up, the camera has caught kids skipping school, assaults, drug dealing, a shooting and a white Ford Expedition that left the scene of an April homicide on Short Vine Street. Police are still looking for that Expedition.

Lore initially didn't like the idea of the cameras - too much like Big Brother. She changed her mind because residents, not the police, choose the targets of these cameras.

Anyone can log on to Citywatcher.com to see archived clips of crimes, but access for using the system is restricted to those who are part of legitimate neighborhood anti-crime efforts. An access code keeps out anyone who might have unsavory reasons for wanting to watch their neighbors.

Darks and Ben Moore, friends since they met at the University of Cincinnati over a decade ago, hooked up to form the e-surveillance company in January after talking about how they might use Moore's technology business to help curb the vandalism and other problems Darks has around several city properties he owns.

They researched kinds of surveillance and decided networked cameras recorded over the Internet might work for them and be marketable to others. They hung demo cameras in neighborhoods including Avondale, Corryville and Walnut Hills.

Then, they started pitching the uniqueness of their system to city officials, police and neighborhood activists.

It's wireless, so the cameras can be moved quickly in response to changes in trouble spots. Anyone with the access code can log onto the Internet, move the cameras' viewpoint, watch for crime and call 911. The cameras also have night color vision and can pan, tilt and zoom.

Those features make the camera's viewpoint much broader than the older, hard-wired ones that fell out of favor at City Hall in 2001 when former City Manager John Shirey said they were too expensive, at $24,502 each, and that they displaced crime more than helped with investigations or arrests. Police said no crimes had ever been solved based on the cameras.

District 4 Capt. Richard Schmalz said that, as an employee of the city, he has to be careful not to appear to be endorsing the cameras. But his neighborhood officers use them. His Violent Crime Squad arrested Antuan White, 25, on a charge of possession of cocaine after watching him on a wireless camera in Avondale.

"We watched it from our office as it was taking place," said Detective Bryant Stewart. "We saw him making what we thought were several hand-to-hand drug transactions, so we went up and did some surveillance and made the arrest."

Dale Mallory, president of the West End Community Council, hopes the crime cam method of neighborhood monitoring makes more people willing to do it.

Members of the Citizens on Patrol in his neighborhood have been shot at, he said, understandably reducing the number of volunteers.

He sees the cameras as the best new way, other than hiring more officers to patrol only his neighborhood, to curb crime in the West End.

The West End group wants $10,000 to pay a security company to watch cameras in the neighborhood and train residents to watch, too. Eventually, the council hopes to get 10 cameras and monitoring, for about $40,000. A demo camera went up last week.

Groups in East Walnut Hills, Walnut Hills and College Hill applied for grants from Councilman David Pepper's new $1 million Safe and Clean Fund to buy cameras and monitor them. The councilman's committee is reviewing the requests, with the first awards expected by the end of the month.

Kathy Atkinson, president of the Walnut Hills Area Council, hopes her group's $53,000 request to buy 14 cameras is approved in the first round. If they get that, then they'll need to find a source for the $21,000 a year they expect to pay in monitoring and video storage costs.

Now, members of the council and Walnut Hills' Community Problem Oriented Policing team use a camera to watch the area around McMillan Street and Kemper Lane.

Residents chose the spot because it drew the greatest number of calls for police service in 2002, Atkinson said, and because the crowds of people who hang out there scare people walking to Kroger and the library.

They're still waiting for police department statistics to see if the camera, up about three months, has deterred crime. "But my gut says it's down dramatically," Atkinson said.

Wilma Lee is looking forward to this new kind of block-watching. The 76-year-old, a West End resident since the 1950s, wants to get involved. But she can't do traditional citizens-on-patrol work, she said, because she's "kind of a senior citizen" and needs her oxygen tank 24 hours a day.

"I don't want to be on the streets,'' she said, "but I want to help if I can."

Lore's camera caught a teenager taking a swing at her boyfriend. He denied it until she said, "We'll go inside and I'll show you what you did.' He started apologizing."

"They have to know not only that the cameras are there,'' she said, "but that you're going to act on it."


Email jprendergast@enquirer.com

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