Sikeston a model for surveillance

Friday, May 4, 2007
If Cape Girardeau needs a model for using surveillance to monitor activity on downtown streets, officials need look no further than Sikeston. Cameras like this one are posted strategically throughout Sikeston.

SIKESTON, Mo. -- If Cape Girardeau needs a model for using surveillance to monitor activity on downtown streets, officials need look no further than Sikeston.

Near the end of 2005, the city installed 21 cameras at its schools, downtown area and around the Sikeston Housing Authority. The city paid $25,000 of the project's initial price tag of $123,000. Since then, the Sikeston Department of Public Safety has steadily expanded the program, which will soon include 32 cameras and bring the total cost to more than $200,000.

Both the school and housing authority helped pay for the cameras, and each has access to the feeds for its own security use. Additional funds came from a U.S. Department of Justice grant.

Sikeston officials say the devices are already paying dividends in crimes solved and criminals deterred. "We want people who are criminals to go somewhere else. We want people to know if they come to Sikeston they better not come here to act up because we're going to get 'em," Sikeston Mayor Mike Marshall said.

The idea of using surveillance equipment in Cape Girardeau is gaining support after a group of downtown merchants complained to city hall about recurring vandalism.

Sikeston's Mayor, Mike Marshall, demonstrated how Sikeston's surveillance cameras are operated from the control room. The city has cameras at its schools, housing authority and downtown. (Diane L. Wilson)

The cameras, which are operated by a joystick from the control room in the Sikeston Department of Public Safety, are known as PTZ (pan, tilt and zoom). This means they can be shifted around 360 degrees and tilted up or down from inside a tinted dome.

An emergency dispatcher watches the camera feeds 24 hours daily. The clarity is strong enough to pick out facial features from three blocks away or a license plate number from about a block and a half.

The images are projected on two 42-inch plasma television monitors, and digital feeds are recorded on a hard drive saved for 30 days.

Not long after the cameras were first installed, officers got a taste of how powerful this surveillance tool can be. "It was a night where we had a pretty good crowd gathering on the street and they started throwing rocks and bottles," said Sikeston Department Public Safety director Drew Juden. "And they actually even attacked a squad car. Somebody threw a cinderblock through the window of a squad car."

After the melee was brought under control, Juden said police did something they'd never previously been able to do: pulled the surveillance footage.

Police quickly identified criminals and made a handful of arrests.

"If that had happened three years ago it would have been a deal where we had no witnesses. Nobody would have seen anything. It would have been very difficult to make arrests," Juden said.

He added that dispatchers are able to use the cameras to forewarn officers of danger while the officers are en route to a crime.

Marshall says he understands the concerns of people wary of being watched, but he thinks the end result is worth any loss of privacy.

"People talk about Big Brother watching, but I hope they know there's reasons for it. These cameras continue to make a difference, and I feel like we're on the cutting edge here," he said.

Marshall thinks Sikeston has the most extensive camera system of any city its size in Missouri. Though unable to cite figures, both he and Juden said there has been a citywide drop in crime since the city installed the cameras. "The word is out," Marshall said.

The most common fear heard by city officials is that cameras will be used to issue speeding tickets or for traffic offenses. City officials said traffic enforcement is not the "intended use" of the cameras, although video footage may be used as evidence after crashes.

People interviewed Thursday in Sikeston generally supported the surveillance equipment.

"They put it out on the west end of town. That's where all the trouble is," said Riceland Food security guard Dale James while having lunch at Jay's Krispy Fried Chicken. "As long as they don't abuse it, it doesn't bother me."

Terry Rawles of Sikeston was pumping gas Thursday at Huck's on Malone Street. He said he and his wife were nearly the victims of a violent crime last year while at a yard sale.

"A car comes screaming past us, it does a U-turn. And all of a sudden all these other guys jump out of another car and these guys just start shooting at each other. And there we are sitting in between them," he said. "I wish they'd add more of these cameras."

Others are skeptical about the placement of the cameras. Tad Johnson lives on Cardinal Street, an area of Sikeston he says has high crime and is monitored by cameras.

Johnson said concentrating surveillance in poorer areas of town amounts to discrimination.

"I think it could be good to a certain extent. But at the same time, if you do it on one end of town you should do it on the other end of town," Johnson said.

He said he hasn't seen a drop in crime.

"I honestly haven't seen that much difference in my neighborhood. People are still selling drugs and still getting away with it. This is just another waste of tax dollars. Your taxes and mine."

335-6611, extension 245

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