Santa Fe police have eye in the sky

Santa Fe sky watchers familiar with the view from the Cross of the Martyrs city park may have noticed a new addition to the skyline: a skinny tower with a nest-like structure of cameras and floodlights on top.

On Sunday evening, small lights on the tower pulsated red and blue against the backdrop of a darkening gray sky.

The tower is attached to a portable 360-degree surveillance trailer operated by the Santa Fe Police Department. It has two Mobile Surveillance Units and they have been deployed to a number of problem spots throughout the city, including the DeVargas skateboard park, where two stabbings were reported within the same week in September.

Santa Fe Police say the mobile cameras are an effective crime deterrent and a way to keep an eye on trouble spots. Business owners and security personnel in places where the cameras have been deployed say they’ve seen a drop in aggressive behavior and think they tend to scare potential problems away.

“Loved it,” downtown business owner Chris Beck said about a camera that was placed across from his shop. “… I was sad when it went away.”

Officers from the Santa Fe Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit have been using the cameras since at least the spring of 2017, shortly after the tech-focused group was formed. Feeds stream live to one of many TV monitors that line the walls of the Criminal Intelligence Unit at police headquarters on Cerrillos Road.

Police can access live video and queue up historical footage to see anything that happens within sight of the cameras. Last week, a live feed from the parking lot at Fort Marcy Suites near downtown played on a monitor across from where Officer Christopher Abbo and two unit detectives sat at their desks.

“It’s just an extra set of eyes,” Abbo said. “… With our short staff and everything, we have to utilize every tool we have available.”

And the cameras have been effective, police say. Their presence helped calm tensions in a neighborhood with an ongoing biker-gang dispute and helped police identify criminals, one of whom was turned over for a federal investigation.

Police also use the surveillance units to help monitor Zozobra and other major events.

During the daytime, the surveillance units look almost like a piece of telecommunication equipment: a trailer with two wheels at the bottom, a white generator box and a tall pole. They might blend in, if not for the drone-like network of 360-degree cameras, floodlights and a loudspeaker atop the tower and, of course, the Santa Fe Police insignia on the generator housing.

At night, the floodlights make the installation even more conspicuous. The trailer located in a Fort Marcy Suites parking lot on Kearney Avenue flooded the dimly lighted street with white light pouring out of the eight spotlights affixed to the top.

Being seen is part of the point. “It’s a huge deterrent,” Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez said, “and a huge reassurance to the community that law enforcement is there.”

Retail workers on East Water Street, across the street from a small corner park with stone benches and a large rock, recall issues with groups loitering there. There could be up to a dozen people, doing anything from fighting to using drugs to harassing potential customers, said Josh Adair, assistant manager of Santa Fe Hemp.

But for more than a year, he said, the area has been more quiet. And his neighbor, The Chile Shop owner Chris Beck, attributes that to a stronger police presence — including the use of one of the surveillance trailers.

“When [police] actually set that up, they all disappeared,” Beck said. “None of them wanted to be on camera.”

After the two reported stabbings at DeVargas skatepark in September, police installed a surveillance unit nearby for about a month, with mixed reviews.

A security guard who patrols nearby said that while the cameras were stationed at that park, he heard negative comments from some of the regular park visitors.

“Mostly, I’ve heard complaints, either (from) homeless people or younger people who fear they’re being watched by ‘The Man,’ ” said the guard, who declined to be identified.

But after the cameras were installed, the guard said he noticed a significant decrease in fights and fewer people drinking alcohol. He estimates nighttime activity in the area is down approximately 50 to 60 percent.

Security personnel used find broken bottles and human feces in the parking lot in the morning. Not so much since the police cameras went up, they say. Less loitering, too.

“I wouldn’t mind it being here a long time,” the security officer said.

Police moved the unit previously located at DeVargas skatepark to the Fort Marcy Hotel Suites location last week, they said, at the request of a property owner who had concerns about nearby crime.

While the surveillance units are just one of many tools the police department and Criminal Intelligence Unit have at their disposal, they’re enough of a benefit that the department wants more. Vasquez said the police are hoping to purchase at least two more units at a cost of $104,745.

For the most part, the Criminal Intelligence staff said, neighbors and business owners seem to appreciate the surveillance units. There was at least one exception, detective Casey Salazar said, when neighborhood residents asked the police to remove a camera because they thought it could be disturbing an owl.

Neighbors by the recently installed Fort Marcy Hotel Suites unit, however, say they don’t mind.

“I didn’t think much of it,” said Ron Cupitt, a Colgate University student visiting Santa Fe who has been staying in the suites since August.

Dale Lovell, who lives in the area and was on a walk near the Cross of the Martyrs with his wife on Sunday afternoon, said they were surprised to see the police unit at first. But he added it makes sense.

“I’m happy to have it. If the police think it’s doing good, fine,” Lovell said. “I don’t think it’s an intrusion, I think it’s good common sense.”

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