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Unmanned Tenn. cruisers keep watch

By Adam Crisp
The Chattanooga Times Free Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - You might see police cruisers labeled "Surveillance Unit" on Chattanooga streets sometime soon.

But even if you aren't paying attention, it's likely the vehicle will take notice of you.

Within a few weeks, city workers will place four police cruisers around Chattanooga. There will not be an officer behind the wheel, but there will be a wireless camera in the passenger seat, officials said.

The work is part of Mayor Ron Littlefield's plan to allow police officers and city workers to catch criminals in the act and provide video evidence of crimes.

"We only have one (vehicle) right now, and it's in a test mode," Mr. Littlefield said. "It's a pretty obvious way to prevent crime and to record it if it does occur."

The mayor is pulling the cars from the Chattanooga Police Department's retired fleet, and he said they likely would have been sold at auction. The cameras, which cost about $5,000 each, had been bought for downtown surveillance operations, said Mark Kiel, the city's chief information officer.

Mr. Kiel said the cameras are state-of-the-art technology. A zoom lens can monitor activity as far away as four blocks and has night vision, he said.

The camera relays its recordings instantly to police through city computer servers. Software can count the number of people who pass the camera's lens.

"If, say, police tell us that more than four people under a bridge is a problem, we can set the software to alert them of that," Mr. Kiel said.

Police also can view the camera's video feed from just about any police laptop, he said.

Mr. Littlefield said he envisions the program as a way to prevent crime and to calm fears in neighborhoods plagued by drugs, prostitution and loitering.

"They are just like scarecrows," he said of unoccupied police cars. "They get some attention at first, but then it kind of wears off."

The mayor said he thinks the presence of the police cars will raise eyebrows, but when pedestrians spot the camera in the passenger seat, the effect will be greater.

Mr. Littlefield has explained the cars and camera equipment to several neighborhood associations, and he has a list of street corners and neighborhoods where residents say the cars should be placed.

The mayor thinks there is room for more than four cars in the surveillance unit.

"One person asked what we were going to do if someone vandalized the vehicle," Mr. Littlefield said. "I just told them that whoever does that better smile because we've got them on tape."

Copyright 2008 The Chattanooga Times Free Press

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