Pubdate: Mon, 17 Aug 2009
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Carrie Porter


Cops Use Old Brink's Truck to Shame Suspects; Video Cameras Add to the Drama

PEORIA, Ill. -- This industrial city, hard hit by the recession, has
found a new, low-budget way to fight crime: Park an unmanned, former
Brink's truck bristling with video cameras in front of the dwellings
of troublemakers.

Police here call it the Armadillo. They say it has restored quiet to
some formerly rowdy streets. Neighbors' calls for help have dropped
sharply. About half of the truck's targets have fled the

"The truck is meant to be obnoxious and to cause shame," says Peoria
Police Chief Steven Settingsgaard.

Police got a call at 2:30 one morning from Mary Smith, a 58-year-old
computer operator at a Butternut Bread Bakery. Fighting back tears,
she asked for relief from her neighbors' incessant yelling.

She and her husband, Terry, 61, a Butternut baker, have lived in their
home on North Wisconsin Avenue for 30 years, and have seen the
neighborhood fall into drug trafficking. The police suggested using
the Armadillo.

That weekend, the truck pulled up to the offending neighbor's house. A
police officer knocked on the door and told the residents a nuisance
report had been filed. Within 24 hours, the Smiths say, the house was
quiet. The occupants moved out soon thereafter.

"The difference was like night and day," Mrs. Smith says. The
landlord, Phil Schertz, credits the Armadillo.

"The ugliness of the Armadillo is what makes it unique," says Jim
Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
"A police car is not a particular stigma, but if people see that thing
in front of your house, they know something bad is going on in there."

Peoria police acknowledge that the truck sometimes just shifts crime
from one area to another. But it can disrupt illegal activities
temporarily. Citizens appear to like the idea, and police say they
have a four-week waiting list of requests for the Armadillo.

Peoria is a city of 114,000 about 170 miles southwest of Chicago. Amid
layoffs at equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. and other companies, the
city's unemployment rate has jumped to 10%, from about 6% a year ago.
Crime has increased as the economy has declined, police say.

The biggest problem, as Peoria police see it, is drug trafficking that
plagues pockets of the city marked by boarded windows, littered lawns
and noise complaints.

In the summer of 2006, police were brainstorming ways to rattle a
suspected drug dealer. They had exhausted traditional strategies,
including undercover operations, and were left empty-handed and
frustrated. They decided to park a retired police car in front of the
suspect's house.

About 24 hours after the car had been put in place, all its windows
had been smashed, the tires were flat and the body was dented.

"It was embarrassing to tow a police car," Chief Settingsgaard says.
"But I saw it as a success because it was proof how much [the dealer]
really disliked the police car's presence."

The dealer left the neighborhood soon after the incident; he was later
arrested and convicted on a gun charge.

One summer night, Chief Settingsgaard was pulling out of police
headquarters when he did a double take. Rusting in a corner of the
police parking lot was a hulking Brink's truck. It had been purchased
- -- for a dollar -- to use in emergencies but had yet to be pressed
into service. The chief thought it could be the perfect
nuisance-deterrence vehicle, seemingly indestructible and inarguably
an eyesore.

Over the next year, the 12,000 pounds of heavy metal got an extensive
makeover, including about $10,000 in new equipment and repairs. It was
outfitted with five infrared surveillance cameras, a padlocked hood, a
locked gas cap, and protective screens over the head and tail lights.

A Peoria tire company installed foam-filled tires that can't go flat.
Decals that say "PEORIA POLICE Nuisance Property Surveillance Vehicle"
were pasted on all four sides of the white truck.

There were some bumps along the road. When Officer Elizabeth
Hermacinski, 39, the force's nuisance-abatement officer and Armadillo
driver, took the behemoth out for its first deployment in July 2008,
the targeted troublemakers seemed to have gotten wind of the plan. In
any case, they had parked cars in every available spot in front of the

So Ms. Hermacinski parked across the street, close enough to get the
message across. "It's psychological warfare," she says.

The Armadillo is the opposite of an undercover operation. Its goal
isn't making arrests, but alerting suspects that police are on to
them, police say. The surveillance footage is rarely reviewed by the
police and is saved for just a short time before it is erased. Still,
the unit can have a significant impact.

This past July, Maggie Wren, 50, requested that the Armadillo pay a
visit to her home. Police say her adult children and grandchildren
were loitering on her front porch and leaving empty beer bottles in
her yard. "Every time I wake up, there's something broken on my
fence," she says.

Police parked the truck outside her house while she went away on
vacation. Police say the porch remained quiet and empty while she was

One recent afternoon, Officer Hermacinski was moving the Armadillo to
a new spot. "It drives like a tractor," she said, yelling in order to
be heard over the engine's roar.

She pulled the Armadillo to the curb of a white, one-story house with
red siding suspected of being a drug house. She flipped on the
surveillance cameras, hopped down from the truck and knocked on the
door of the house. No one answered. Then she walked over to a waiting
police cruiser, got in and drove away, leaving the Armadillo to do its
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake