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Powerful surveillance tool ‘Skywatch’ keeps an eye on holiday revelers

It could have rolled off the set of a science fiction movie, but it came from a homeland security grant.

People downtown on Wednesday pointed and asked strangers on the street what was up with the imposing observation deck on wheels that stretches 25 feet into the air.

SkyWatch is the Buffalo Police Department’s latest surveillance tool, equipped with powerful high-definition cameras that allow officers to monitor activity hundreds of yards away in large crowds.

The city purchased the $200,000 apparatus, which has been in use in New York City for years, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“That’s creepy,” said Desmarie Ayers, a student at Emerson School of Hospitality who was waiting for a bus at Delaware Avenue and Chippewa Street while police officials showed the new tool to reporters.

“I’m all for crime-fighting, but it’s a little too controlling for me.”

The apparatus, which stretches across an entire lane of traffic while it is deployed, was used for the first time Wednesday night, traditionally the busiest bar night of the year.

The block of Chippewa between Delaware and Elmwood avenues had to be shut to traffic in order to accommodate it.

“It’s like a scarecrow,” said Rob Fussell, who works downtown.

But this scarecrow comes equipped with infrared technology, which will allow the cameras to be effective at night.

“The cameras have amazing clarity, and it is an extension of our police surveillance camera system, which is very popular and has been very well-received by our residents,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown, standing on the sidewalk at the busy Delaware and Chippewa intersection, which already has police cameras.

The city unveiled the new technology following two recent homicides in parking lots just off the Chippewa strip and less than a week after federal, state and city law enforcement conducted a sting targeting underage drinking in bars in the district.

Central District Chief Brian K. Patterson said that on an average busy night in the Chippewa area, officers make five to 10 arrests, usually for disorderly conduct.

The value of SkyWatch is not only in the strength of the cameras but also in the deterrent effect it has on crime. Towering higher than traffic signals, it’s tough to miss.

“It gives the officers the ability to go up above the crowd and get a 360 [degree] bird’s-eye view of what’s going on,” Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.

Asked about whether SkyWatch gives a sense that Big Brother is watching, Derenda said the department will use “whatever tools we can use to better serve the public.”

Block clubs and business associations have requested more police cameras, and the city has not received complaints about too many cameras, Brown said.

“We have responded to the public’s desire to have us even more focused on public safety, and we’re essentially just giving the public what they want,” the mayor said.

SkyWatch is part of the department’s larger plan to increase patrols in entertainment districts, shopping areas and neighborhoods through New Year’s Day.

The observation deck is outfitted with cameras that can be operated remotely by officers in Police Department headquarters, and an officer doesn’t have to be in the apparatus for it to be useful, Derenda said.

Officers monitoring the camera footage – inside the unit or at headquarters – will be in radio contact with patrol officers on the ground.

SkyWatch will be used on Chippewa on busy nights and at city festivals.

The festivals haven’t been the scene of many crimes, and SkyWatch will help keep it that way, Derenda said.

“It’s just another tool to make sure that things continue to be safe and, possibly, even safer,” he said.

As for its homeland security purpose, Derenda said any time large crowds gather, there is a potential for a terrorist attack.

“It becomes a homeland security issue because one terrorist act could really do lots of damage,” he said.

The device got quizzical looks from downtown workers grabbing coffee or lunch and people taking a pre-holiday stroll on a sunny Wednesday afternoon.

One passer-by mentioned a resemblance to “Robocop.”

Others suggested it was a way to control unruly masses of drunken people.

“What are they going to be looking for? Fights, drugs?” asked Danny Elkhouri, who works downtown.

“It’s going to make [criminals] think twice,” said Danny’s cousin, James Elkhouri.

Mark Croce, a longtime entrepreneur on Chippewa, doesn’t think the presence of such a conspicuous surveillance tool will discourage people from patronizing downtown bars and restaurants. He said that more security sends the right message.

“I don’t think anyone who is coming down to drink responsibly will be offended by enhanced police presence,” he said.