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Eyes in the Sky

Winooski fights crime with video surveillance — and it’s not the only Vermont burg doing so


Published July 11, 2012 at 10:55 a.m.

Walk through the Winooski Commons, as the small park in the center of the traffic roundabout is called, and you may be struck by what isn’t there. The assortment of stairs, railings, ledges and benches resembles an alluring terrain park, yet the remarkable absence of skaters’ scratches and scuff marks suggests that the “No Skateboarding” signs are well heeded.

Down the hill by the Winooski River, couples push strollers along the litter-free RiverWalk and past graffiti-less walls. Those who park across the street in Winooski’s multilevel garage will most likely find it clean, safe and free of skaters and spray paint, too; according to the Winooski Police Department, larcenies and vandalism in the garage are down “dramatically” from years past.

What’s behind Winooski’s recent trend of Mayberry-like decorum? A peek at the new bus shelter outside the Champlain Mill offers a big hint: Etched into its transparent Plexiglas walls is this warning: “Video Surveillance on Property.”

Nearly all of Winooski’s downtown core now falls under the watchful, unblinking eye of the Winooski PD — two dozen eyes, to be precise. Several years ago, the city installed 18 surveillance cameras downtown, and has added another six in the last year.

On the first floor of the Winooski police station, Chief Steve McQueen stands behind the dispatcher’s desk facing three 42-inch, high-definition TV screens. Each screen is a checkerboard pattern of various downtown locations, captured from multiple angles.

At $2500 apiece, the cameras produce color, high-def images with night-vision capability. Some cameras, such as those in the parking garage, are activated by motion sensors. Others are always on, recording virtually every movement downtown at all hours of the day and night. With a mouse click, the dispatcher can pan and zoom in to read license plates on passing vehicles.

All these images are stored digitally on a server for about 30 days, after which they’re overwritten by new ones, McQueen explains, unless they’re needed for an investigation. In those cases, the video can be downloaded and burned to a DVD.

“It has really reduced vandalism,” McQueen says. “The first couple of times we grabbed some kids for breaking streetlights down there and spray painting, the word got out that, Hey! They can see us on videotape!

Winooski is only one of several Vermont municipalities, including Brattleboro and Richford, that have invested in video-surveillance equipment as a crime-fighting tool. And, like those other cities and towns, Winooski is seeing its investment pay off big-time. Even as civil libertarians warn that allowing more public spaces to be surveilled 24/7 by police creates a slippery slope, communities that can’t afford to put more — or any — cops on the streets have found surveillance an economical and effective deterrent to unwanted activities.

“From my perspective on the maintenance side of things, it’s been fantastic,” says Steve Palmer, Winooski city engineer and public works supervisor. According to Palmer, in 2009, shortly after the city completed its downtown redesign, his department experienced a rash of destructive behavior: people destroying bollards, smashing streetlights, ripping up portions of the RiverWalk and spray-painting walls.

Not all the damage was deliberate, Palmer surmises. Occasionally, skateboarders climbed the wall beside the new fountain and unintentionally crushed new light fixtures, which cost the city several hundred dollars each to replace.

“Multiply that by 50 or 60 lights a year and you say, ‘Gee, that’s a big expense every year,’” Palmer says.

Another expense came from skateboarders who were “grinding,” or sliding, along the newly painted railings and benches — all of which had to be sanded and repainted.

“It was costing us hundreds and hundreds of man-hours just to maintain this stuff,” Palmer adds. Since the surveillance cameras were installed, however, “I would say 90 percent of that has gone away.”

Winooski police don’t watch the cameras 24 hours a day. When an incident occurs — say, someone reports a break-in in the parking garage — an officer will go back and review the footage in an effort to identify the perpetrator.

Or, say a call comes in on a weekend night that a fight is under way outside a bar. In that case, McQueen says, the dispatcher can pan and zoom the camera to document the action, then report whatever is happening to officers not yet on the scene.

Although the Winooski City Council had to approve the purchase of the surveillance system, McQueen says the plan faced virtually no push back from local citizens. Despite Vermont’s strong libertarian streak, McQueen is unsurprised by the lack of controversy the cameras generated: “People see it for what it is: looking for people committing crimes and keeping people safe.”

In fact, Winooski cameras have been useful for more than just nabbing petty offenders. In 2009, McQueen recalls, they were used to help convict a Swanton man accused of trying to abduct a 25-year-old woman who was walking along Colchester Avenue. The video from one of Winooski’s cameras captured images of the man’s truck driving through the roundabout, which contradicted his statement about being elsewhere at the time of the attempted abduction.

In another incident about a month ago, McQueen recalls, the mother of a Winooski woman in her twenties contacted the police insisting that her daughter had been “kidnapped” by someone she’d been chatting with online. Given the daughter’s “history of emotional difficulties,” McQueen says, police considered it a possibility — that is, until they reviewed the video from the time of her disappearance.

“We had her on video down at the bus station,” McQueen reports. “She was waiting for someone and texting away. We see the vehicle pull up, a guy gets out, they give each other a great big hug, get into the car together and drive away.”

Had police not had this video to show the mother, McQueen adds, “I’d be out there today hunting a kidnapper.”

Other small municipalities have been getting into the surveillance business. In Brattleboro (population 7500), Police Chief Gene Wrinn says his department has been using surveillance cameras for years in the downtown and multistory transportation center. As Wrinn recalls, the cameras faced initial resistance from residents, who were concerned about how police might use the footage.

“We just had to convince people this was not Big Brother watching you,” he says. Since then, the system has proved “extremely useful” in solving crimes, including a stabbing in the parking garage several years ago.

For certain tiny, cash-strapped communities, surveillance equipment is a cheaper alternative to 24-hour police coverage. For years, the tiny border town of Richford (population 2500) had a problem on weekend nights, especially in the summer, when dozens of youths gathered on one particular corner along Main Street.

“It’s not that big a town, population-wise, but there’s a lot of area,” explains Richford selectboard chair Linda Collins. For years, the board received complaints about the loiterers “stopping traffic, hooting and hollering, playing loud music, and all that stuff.”

Because of its size, Richford can’t afford its own police force, so it contracts for one shift per day through the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. On weekends, sheriff’s deputies were routinely called to the problem corner, Collins says. They dispersed the crowd — which returned once the police left the area.

Frustrated, the Richford selectboard finally voted last year to install a $7000 web-based surveillance system that can be operated and viewed remotely. Collins says sheriff’s deputies and state troopers can now log on to the town’s surveillance system and view the images using laptops in their cruisers. Since the cameras arrived, problems in the downtown area have all but disappeared.

Collins notes that the selectboard fielded no complaints from local citizens about the cameras.

“I suppose the drug dealers don’t think it’s great, but there’s been a lot less of that on that corner,” she says. “The only comment we ever heard was ‘Good! It’s about time!’”

Such law-enforcement success stories raise an inevitable question: Have Vermonters grown so accustomed to being on camera wherever they go in public — at airports, public schools, shopping malls and ATMs — that the idea of near-ubiquitous police surveillance no longer riles them up?

Dan Barrett doesn’t think so. The staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont says video surveillance in the Green Mountain State is still less pervasive than in most places — and that Vermonters want to keep it that way.

“We think that people should be able to go about their business, whether it’s walking down the street or commuting to work or whatever, without the fear of pervasive, widespread, 24-hour surveillance,” Barrett says.

The residents of some municipalities that have considered public video cameras appear to agree. Several years ago, Bellows Falls seriously debated the idea, only to shelve it after a huge community backlash. Burlington, the state’s largest municipality, has never had city-owned video cameras trained on public areas, except those that monitor the interiors and immediate surroundings of municipal buildings such as city hall, the high school and the public works department. One longtime officer in the Burlington PD couldn’t say why not, but speculated that the idea wouldn’t fly politically.

For his part, Barrett thinks public outrage about police surveillance will be reignited once it goes mobile. He expects the inevitable arrival of what the military calls “unmanned aerial vehicles,” aka drones. As part of the “increasing militarization” of domestic police forces, Barrett says, several police departments around the country have already begun using small, domestic drones to surveil U.S. citizens.

In June 2011, according to U.S. News & World Report, a Lakota, N.D., man was arrested after police tracked his location using an unmanned drone. And just last week, the Atlantic reported that the U.S. Air Force was using military drones to trail civilian automobiles on New Mexico highways.

Barrett predicts that Vermonters’ first exposure to drones will come via U.S. Border Patrol, which already uses them in other areas of the country for border enforcement. It’s worth noting that, in some northern Vermont communities, Border Patrol already provides emergency backup law enforcement when state police or other agencies aren’t readily available.

“I think people will become much more attuned to this issue,” Barrett suggests. “It’s less as an issue of the camera at the ATM and more as ‘OK, who’s watching me now?’”