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The eyes in the sky
Platteville police can monitor downtown through three overhead cameras
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Police Lt. Jeff Haas looks at a shot from one of the downtown overhead cameras.

And the voice

Cameras can see you in downtown Platteville. And the city’s tornado and fire sirens can talk to you.

Since sirens were upgraded in the 2000s, “we have the ability to transmit an audible message,” said Police Chief Doug McKinley.

That audible message is tested during siren tests on the first Wednesday of each month. So far, the messages have been only tests.

“An application might be if you have a tanker that was transporting hazardous material, and they had a rollover or something, you could transmit that message to evacuate the area,” said McKinley.

“That wouldn’t do it by itself, but it would augment the message.”

Lt. Jeff Haas added the sirens could be used for messages after severe storms, if power wasn’t interrupted to the units.

The steady signal is for tornado warnings, and the up-and-down signal is for fires. The up-and-down signal also was for enemy air attacks in the Cold War days.

“By and large, the priority has been to alert people to weather concerns,” said Haas.

PLATTEVILLE — Visitors to downtown Platteville may not realize they’re being watched.

Walk or drive past the Avalon Theatre, or the north side of the Municipal Building, or the intersection of Court Street and Main Street, and you will appear on one of the city’s three downtown cameras.

From computer screens on the dispatch center at the Platteville Police Department, people and vehicles that travel through downtown can be viewed by police officers and Police Department employees.

“If you look at them they look like a streetlight,” said Police Chief Doug McKinley. “They help our dispatchers monitor a lot of activities on Second  Street and Main Street, and with pretty good frequency they will call officers and say you might want to check this out at this location.”

McKinley said dispatchers watch for fights and vandalism, not “run-of-the-mill” things. The dispatchers as their duties permit are utilizing the cameras, so there is another set of eyes, but they also can go back and look at things to follow up on incidents.

“They’ve been good resources, but we could probably have them more advertised for their deterrent value, that there is an eye in the sky.”

The cameras were installed in September 2008, McKinley said, because of “a lot of concerns about quality-of-life issues — disorderly conduct, loud behavior on Main Street and Second Street — pedestrian traffic on Main Street and trying to monitor that.”

One quality-of-life issue caught on camera is public urination, including two instances in the past eight months in the parking lot at the Police Department.

“That’s one that strikes a lot of fear in people,” said Lt. Jeff Haas. “They run out and they had to go and they decided to go …”

Since installation, the cameras have been used as evidence for more serious incidents, including an incident in which someone drove into a downtown bar, the February 2012 downtown pipe bomb incident, and determining the time smoke was visible in the Chicago’s Best fire. Cameras also are used to monitor traffic stops within range to see if officers need backup.

Video from the cameras is usually kept 30 to 60 days, although video can be saved longer for evidence or other needs.

The cameras were funded by the downtown Tax Incremental Financing district. The cameras were installed after the Downtown Redevelopment Authority and the Historic Preservation Commission were “on board with the idea,” said McKinley. “We’ve gotten really good cooperation from the business community. Three of the cameras are on private property.”

The cameras are standard definition, not high definition. But the resolution of the cameras is such that a license plate on a car parked in the lot on Mineral Street between Second Street and Third Street can be clearly viewed from the Municipal Building cameras. The Avalon camera can easily see as far east as Water Street. The Municipal Building camera can see as far east as the Broadway–Mineral Street intersection.

“They have limitations — when you need to look north they may look south,” said McKinley. “Dispatchers have to zoom in and focus on any activity that appears suspicious in nature.”

The cameras have been used in court. “Where we’ve had a lot of luck with them is substantiating,” backtracking a person’s whereabouts, said McKinley. “It can corroborate or debunk somebody’s version of events. You can tell if somebody is aggravating or perpetuating a problem.”

Haas mentioned a fight that would have been a he-said/he-said situation had it not been for the camera evidence. “It really helps the honest person,” he said.

Camera images also have been used in public appeals for information about crimes, such as vandalism of bicycles parked on Main Street early Nov. 18. Police released two photos of a man in a white jacket and another man in a black jacket walking south from Second Street to Main Street. The video from that night shows the two walking past a bicycle, and after they walk past, though no activity is shown, the bicycle is in a different position.

For those who think their privacy is invaded because they are being photographed in a public area, McKinley answered, “People would be somewhat dismayed to find how often they are on cameras, between business cameras, Department of Transportation cameras, surveillance cameras.

“The staff has been instructed that they are not to look into private residences. They are situated where they show comings and goings in public areas, where the expectation of privacy is very minimal.”

At the moment, only three of the four downtown cameras are operational. The fourth was put out of commission after the Chicago’s Best fire Aug. 25.

If funding existed for additional cameras, McKinley suggested the intersections of Chestnut Street and Main Street or Pine Street would be useful locations.

“Right now it would be a little cost-prohibitive” to add another camera, said McKinley, but “there have been discussions.” The problem beyond cost is that “any more cameras would cut into our server space.

“We view them as a force multiplier — an extra set of eyes that are out there.”