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Closed-Circuit Television: Peoria’s Nuisance Property Surveillance Vehicles

By Steve Settingsgaard, Chief of Police, Peoria, Illinois, Police Department



he Peoria, Illinois, Police Department has devised an innovative and economical approach to deal with nuisance properties that disrupt and destabilize neighborhoods. Peoria created a nuisance property surveillance vehicle, nicknamed “the Armadillo,” from an old security service armored truck to provide 24-hour camera surveillance of offending residences and to simultaneously send a strong message to violators and to the community.

In 2006, the department was determined to find a solution to quality-of-life issues plaguing some Peoria neighborhoods: loud music, littering, loitering, and generally unsupervised and ill-mannered youth. After trying various conventional methods to combat the problem, the officers developed the idea of using an armored surveillance vehicle. The department fortified the car to withstand assault and outfitted it with infrared surveillance cameras and a digital recording system. The deployment location is determined by a nuisance abatement officer who establishes a target location for the vehicle, based on police reports and citizen complaints. The officer parks the Armadillo directly in front of a problem property.

Armadillo deployment often leads to offenders’ voluntary cessation of problematic behavior or to eviction by offenders’ landlords, who may see the police response as a final straw in tenants’ miscreant behavior. Correspondingly, the presence of the Armadillo has led to a reduction in calls for service and in the need for police to patrol that area.

The Armadillo deployment is not intended to impact citywide crime fluctuations; rather, the program’s success is in cooling off crime hotspots. Further, while the Armadillo probably displaces offending behavior to some extent, evidence suggests the program also curtails some problematic behavior altogether. The program is able to create these outcomes in a cost-effective way: the Armadillo provides around-the-clock police presence without requiring intensive manpower. Once parked, the vehicle can operate continuously for five days without further officer involvement. Residents appreciate both the immediate results from Armadillo deployment and the feeling of police presence in their communities.

The police website features an e-mail link for citizens to request the Armadillo and lists the dates and locations of planned Armadillo deployments.
The Peoria officers felt the project was effective enough to warrant the deployment of another nuisance vehicle, the Armadillo II, in March 2010. This vehicle builds on the technology of the first Armadillo to create an improved model.

Peoria’s Quality-of-Life Problems

Peoria, like many industrial communities in metropolitan areas, has been hard hit by the economic recession. Crime in the city increased as the economy worsened. Drug trafficking became a problem in certain areas. One problem with drug trafficking is that it in turn breeds nuisance behaviors. Recognizing that disruptive behavior can destroy a community’s quality of life, the city clamped down on nuisance problems rather than letting them slide. The crux of the problems could be traced to a few residences or retail businesses in a neighborhood. However, identifying the problem properties was much easier than remediating them—a reality that often left the public dissatisfied with police performance.


The Fortuitous Sacrifice of a Police Patrol Car

During the summer of 2006, as police were trying to strategize for effective ways to address nuisance problems, a serendipitous series of events transpired in the creation of the Armadillo.

During this time, activities surrounding the residence of a suspected drug dealer were especially irksome for one neighborhood in Peoria. The officers had employed several traditional strategies to combat the problem, including a covert narcotics operation, but all were unsuccessful in eliminating the problem, leaving the community increasingly frustrated with police.

During a command staff meeting, the idea of parking an unmanned squad car directly in front of the house in an attempt to disrupt the drug trafficking took shape. In this way, there could be an indication of police presence without placing any officers at the scene. Though aware that the car could be attacked and damaged, command staff decided to proceed to see what crime-deterring impact, if any, the car would have.

On the following Friday evening, an officer parked an old marked police car directly in front of the nuisance property and left it there unattended. Early the next morning the officers found the car severely vandalized: every piece of glass on the car was smashed, from the windshield to the headlights; the sheet metal was damaged; the tires were slashed; and foreign objects littered the interior, including a bike frame in the backseat and rocks on the floor. While it is embarrassing to tow a police car, the department considered the deployment a success because it showed how much the drug dealer disliked the police car’s presence.

Officers then considered if there was a way of continuing to apply this threat without suffering destruction of police cars. It was at this time that Peoria officers decided to utilize an old armored car that a security service had sold to the police for one dollar. The vehicle was considerably less vulnerable to attack than a squad car and was more obvious than standard police cars. This quality would make the vehicle more obtrusive to offenders and more noticeable for other community members anxious for police intervention.

Because the car still had areas vulnerable to vandalism, it needed stronger fortification. Public works technicians removed unneeded vents that could allow vandalism to the interior and outfitted the car with headlight and taillight screens, a locking fuel cap, a padlocked hood, and foam-filled tires that could not become flat. Police made the car even more conspicuous by adding prominent decals on all sides of the car in large gold block letters that read “Peoria Police Nuisance Property Surveillance Vehicle,” and by mounting emergency lights on the roof.

Police also installed a digital recorder and a camera monitoring system to serve the dual purpose of documenting illegal activities and deterring problem behavior including potential vandalism of the truck itself. The electronics on the car consist of five infrared cameras, four of which are mounted on the top of the car to provide 360-degree coverage. The camera view captures any angular approach to the vehicle while still providing a sharp image of the target residence. The system also has a multiplex LCD monitor, which allows the operator to align the cameras for the optimum view. The digital recorder is mounted inside and has a removable hard drive for downloading or making DVDs.


The Armadillo’s Intended Purpose

Fully equipped and fortified, the Armadillo is a virtually indestructible surveillance vehicle that effectively discourages illegal narcotics activity and associated nuisance behaviors where it is deployed. Essentially, the program is the opposite of an undercover operation; its goal is not to make arrests but rather to make clear to suspects that police are actively aware of them and can view their behavior.

The aesthetic of the truck, which is intentionally conspicuous, is meant to cause a sense of shame in offenders. When people see the Armadillo parked in front of a house, they know something unlawful has been reported as happening at the residence.


Deployment

On July 10, 2008, the Armadillo was first deployed. Coincidentally, the first location was about a block away from where the original police car was damaged. This time, however, the venture met with success in deterring nuisance behavior and leaving the vehicle unscathed. The event was showcased to the Peoria community through the local print and television media. Citizen blog comments were overwhelmingly favorable, congratulating the department for its innovative approach. The police subsequently received numerous e-mails and phone calls endorsing the Armadillo and requesting immediate placement in front of problem properties.


Program Operation

The Nuisance Property Surveillance Vehicle program is fairly easy to coordinate. When the department gets a request for the Armadillo, a nuisance abatement officer researches the address in question. Criteria for deployment includes drug trafficking complaints, chronic police crime reports, and general quality-of-life complaints regarding loitering, loud music, excessive neighborhood calls for service, traffic violations, and code enforcement problems. The police website features an e-mail link to a nuisance abatement officer through which citizens can request the Armadillo, and the website further lists the dates and locations of Armadillo deployments so community members can track police interventions.

After a location is designated as a good target, the Armadillo is parked for three to five days in front of a problem property. The landlord or property owner is notified of the Armadillo’s presence and the reason for its presence. Frequently, landlords are willing to take action to abate the problem, especially if they were previously looking for a reason to evict problem tenants. But even if landlords do not become involved in addressing the problem, the Armadillo’s presence curbs behavior dramatically.


Measuring the Armadillo’s Effectiveness

The police department quantitatively measures the effectiveness of the program by analyzing statistics for reported resident problems before and after the Armadillo is deployed. Also considered is whether the area makes subsequent requests for the Armadillo and what feedback is received from neighbors.

The conclusion from these data is highly favorable. The community actively requests Armadillo deployment and has provided positive feedback. Data reveal that the number of calls for service before the Armadillo is parked exceeds the number after the deployment. In fact, calls for service frequently drop off completely as a result of offender eviction or voluntary evacuation or sometimes from arrests.

The Armadillo is also a cost-effective option for smaller to mid-sized cities, provided that the number of problem residences and area to cover is not too expansive. It is cheaper to use the surveillance vehicles than actual officers. The total project cost, excluding labor, was approximately $10,000. Most of the expense is in the camera technology, the fortification, and the painting and decaling. This rough cost estimate assumes the inexpensive acquisition of the armored car.


Amid these notable advantages, the Armadillo may sometimes displace crime from one area to another. Even in these cases, however, the truck does serve to disrupt illegal activities at least temporarily and helps to prevent offenders from becoming entrenched in an area.

The following areas have all shown substantial improvement directly attributable to the project:

Restoration of peace and public satisfaction. The Armadillo provides instant gratification to neighbors, and the problem tenants feel immediate pressure.

Targeted crime reduction. The program affects a significant decrease in police reports and calls for service in the areas where the Armadillo is deployed. Its presence deters drug customers, and about half of the truck’s targets flee their neighborhood or are evicted. Those who do stay typically become better neighbors.

Landlord collaboration. Landlord and police relations have improved through the program, and a nuisance abatement officer often attends housing court to testify for the landlord.

Better use of police resources. The program is cost-effective and requires few hours of work, allowing officers to focus their efforts on other issues while quality-of-life concerns are still addressed. Further, operation of the vehicle can be assigned to a number of different police units depending on availability, or even to a civilian employee.


The Armadillo II and Future Plans

Building on the success of the first Armadillo, Peoria Police developed a second model. The Armadillo II has some improved features, including graffiti-resistant paint and nearly twice the number of surveillance cameras to provide different views of the target property while maintaining the 360-degree view. The cost for Armadillo II was approximately $8,000 more than the first Armadillo, due to more extensive paint and body work, bringing the total cost to $18,000.

The next planned improvement for both Armadillos is to mount solar panels on the vehicles to help power the electronics on extended deployments.


Transferability

Peoria’s Nuisance Abatement Surveillance Vehicle program is effective in curbing illegal and offending behavior in city hotspots, and citizens are grateful for the endeavor. Police receive phone calls from citizens thanking them for intervention and for their help in revitalizing neighborhoods. One voice mail message received near the beginning of the project thanked the department and compared the state of the neighborhood, post–Armadillo deployment, to the tranquility of the neighborhood of 20 years earlier. The affordable nature of the program for small to mid-sized cities is an added attraction. The Peoria Police Department will continue to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies contemplating their own projects. ■


Please cite as:

Steve Settingsgaard, "Closed-Circuit Television: Peoria’s Nuisance Property Surveillance Vehicles," The Police Chief 78 (April 2011): 30–35.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 3, April 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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