Brooklyn Bureau: NYPD Towers May Defuse Cop, Community Friction

Photo by: Pearl Gabel
Precinct 67 operates a tower in East Flatbush at the corner of Nostrand and Tilden Avenues, in Patrol Bureau Brooklyn South, one of two in the borough.

Some Brooklynites who live and work near the borough’s two police watchtowers say the observation posts are affecting more than the incidence of crime.

By: Malik Singleton

The police department has deployed two of its SkyWatch observation towers in the borough, and residents say they’re affecting more than the incidence of crime.

The NYPD's program of introducing ominous observation towers in certain New York City neighborhoods could be working in more ways than one. While the 25-foot-tall mobile surveillance posts are supposed to improve crime investigation and crime deterrence, they may also be reducing tense confrontations between foot patrol officers and civilians.

According to members of two affected Brooklyn communities, the presence of SkyWatch towers appears to result in fewer foot patrol officers getting assigned to street beats. Also, since towers are equipped with cameras, they make those officers who are on the street just as mindful of their conduct as civilians are.

"They're just sitting up there with tinted windows looking down on us," says Fifi, who works at a bakery near one of the towers. "C'mon, you think I don't see you too?"

In the two Brooklyn precincts where SkyWatch towers have been active for most of this year, police stopped nearly 13,000 people in 2011. Both areas have been part of Operation Impact, an NYPD initiative that floods high-crime areas with rookie foot cops. And both precincts ranked in the top 10 for number of civilian complaints against police officers from 2006 through 2010.

"Police brutality is real," says a middle-aged customer at Elisa's coffee shop in view of a watchtower at Myrtle and Throop Avenues, who gives his name only as Peter, "but it's the ones on foot that give us the trouble."

The SkyWatch towers are designed to reduce how many NYPD boots are on the ground. Melissa Woods of FLIR Security Systems, which manufactures the towers, says one of the main goals of the towers is reducing a force's dependence on foot patrol officers.

"The towers give [the NYPD] increased effectiveness of visibility and a decreased need for manpower," referring to amount of police needed to survey one area. "One tower is the same as having five officers on the ground.”

Different reasons to deploy

The NYPD owns and operates a small fleet of Sentinel model SkyWatch towers. Detective Cheryl Crispin of the NYPD's office of public information says that at present, there are two towers active in Brooklyn, one in each of the borough’s two patrol bureaus.

NYPD borough commanders, who hold the rank of assistant chief, ultimately determine which streets will be placed under SkyWatch surveillance and for how long.

Until recently, Precinct 79 in the Brooklyn North patrol bureau operated a tower in Bed-Stuy at the corner of Myrtle and Throop Avenues, across from the Sumner Houses housing development. Officers on hand said the location, selected by Assistant Chief Gerald Nelson, was picked just for general observation.

On February 15, however, the north tower was moved to Eastern Parkway between New York and Brooklyn Aves in Crown Heights' Precinct 77. The DCPI maintains that this move is not due to any crime-related incident and that it will be stationed in the largely Hasidic community only one week.

The site overlooks the Talmudical Seminary where, for the week, there is a Shluchot Convention taking place. A participant explained that the convention brings together 4,500 wives of Rabbis from different cities and countries worldwide, and speculated that the SkyWatch tower is there to observe.

Meanwhile, Precinct 67 operates a tower in East Flatbush at the corner of Nostrand and Tilden Avenues, in Patrol Bureau Brooklyn South, commanded by Assistant Chief Thomas Chan. That tower was deployed, officers on hand said, in direct response to three shootings in the same two-block radius during January.

A young employee at a deli near the East Flatbush tower says he knows why the tower is present on his street. "My cousin got shot," he said in a quiet voice, recalling one of the recent incidents as an in-store shooting.

Eddy, a customer at the same deli, was familiar with that incident as well as the two other recent shootings, one on Nostrand near Tilden, the other a block away on Cortelyou Road. "There's always something happening out here," he says, explaining how shootings aren't unusual. "It's just the neighborhood."

Fifi, whose vantage point at her store window is in direct view of the tower, thinks the sudden presence of NYPD surveillance presents a dilemma, acknowledging the safety benefits but also expressing discomfort with being constantly observed.

Woods, from the SkyWatch manufacturer, acknowledges the perception of the towers as intruders. "A lot of people feel like it's Big Brother, but that was never our intent," she says."These were designed to protect people and prevent new problems in the most effective way."

Custom-made for NYPD

The NYPD says it has introduced towers into communities after waves of street crimes were recorded in a concentrated area. Prior to the SkyWatch program they would only have the option of responding with increased teams of officers assigned to patrol designated streets on foot for days following violent incidents. But having to pay out increased hours of overtime would quickly strain a precinct's budget, so they'd scale back the patrols soon thereafter, leaving the streets vulnerable to violent activities again.

The NYPD purchased their first observation towers in late 2006 and delivery was made very early in 2007. The 8,230-lb. machines were manufactured, sold and shipped in the U.S. by ICx Technologies, Inc. until 2010 when the company was acquired by FLIR Security Systems. FLIR, which stands for Forward-Looking InfraRed, builds other specialized surveillance equipment such as night vision cameras and goggles. Company records show that 12 SkyWatch towers were sold to the NYPD, one to NY Transit, and three to the New York City Housing Authority. The basic model Sentinel, without added options, currently sells for $73,171.28.

But the NYPD needed extras, according to Woods. She says the department "came up with a unique camera configuration for their towers" involving four cameras.

"This set up has three fixed cameras, one on each of three sides of the tower. Because these cameras are fixed, it entirely depends on where and how the tower is placed as to where those cameras point," Woods says. "The fourth camera is a PTZ camera, which is able to pan, tilt, and zoom. This means the camera operator can move this one camera in any direction – left, right, up, or down." The four camera system costs approximately $18,000.

Not only do observation towers increase the amount of street activity that police are able to monitor, but the machine is also able to remain on assignment for weeks and even months with just one or two officers required to operate it.

Do they work?

Woods maintains that the SkyWatch towers are "an incredible deterrent," and that they have 70 to 80 percent effectiveness.

The NYPD, however, did not cite any quantitative benchmarks or scientific measurement of the effectiveness of the surveillance program. "There is no way to measure quantitatively, but crime drops and the community is happy,” DCPI’s Crispin says, "The community loves them."

So far in 2012, major felony crime in the 79th precinct is up 36 percent over last year thanks to a rise in robbery and assault. The 67th precinct has seen major felonies, led by assault and auto theft, decrease by 5 percent over last year. Crime in the 77th, where the south Brooklyn tower moved for a temporary stay, is down nearly 20 percent on the year.

Some skeptics of SkyWatch towers believe they affect where—not whether—crime occurs. One of the officers on duty at one of the towers shared that skepticism. "This can't stop crime,” he said. “It just gets displaced."

In its independent evaluation of the SkyWatch system, the Loss Prevention Research Council found the SkyWatch systems are "more effective than other traditional crime reduction tools such as special law enforcement patrols." The study focused on violent crime; it did not look at the drug dealing that represents about a third of the arrests made in New York City each year.

Nor did it look at the impact of SkyWatch towers on the number and nature of contacts between foot officers and the public.

Reducing friction?

In the two precincts where SkyWatch towers have been deployed for most of this year, the recent trend in police stop-and-frisk encounters differs.

In the 67th precinct, the number of stops increased 22 percent from 2010 to 2011, to nearly 8,000 encounters last year. In the 79th, there was a 34 percent drop in stops, from more than 7,700 in 2010 to just over 5,000 last year.

There is skepticism about the effectiveness of the towers. Norbert Morvan, 58, a customer at Patience Variety Store, says, "They come after the fact" referring to the timing of the tower station. He says that shortly after the January incidents cops were stationed on his corner with bullhorns, offering $2,000 reward for helpful information. "Usually, cops stop a man for having a beer on his steps, but not finding out who's packing."

But even among critics of the NYPD there is an acknowledgement of the reality of violent crime—and given that, some sentiment that the department's watchtowers are the better enforcement option.

"It's good, it's more security," says Peter, the coffee shop customer. "Especially in a black neighborhood—they give us the guns to kill each other, but this can stop some of it."