Wilkes-Barre’s 250 Surveillance Cameras: How Effective?

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WILKES-BARRE -- At the Hawkeye Security Control Center at Wilkes-Barre Police Headquarters, you can view entire neighborhoods.

If a citizen or officer calls here, a trained monitor can punch up live video of one of 250 cameras throughout Wilkes-Barre.

The system stores video from every camera for nine days to use as potential evidence.

"There is not a community throughout Pennsylvania that would not want what Wilkes-Barre city has," says Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton.

Wilkes-Barre`s Public Square is saturated with cameras. We counted seven.

But just three-quarters of a mile away on Grant Avenue, Sunday, July 7, Vaughn Kemp, 24, was shot to death as he ran from a gunman.  There are no cameras in that neighborhood.

And the same night, on North Sherman Street, someone threw a rock through the front door of Preppy Pet Dog Grooming, then stole $40 from a donation jar.

There are no city cameras in that neighborhood either.

"To me, it would make more sense to have a camera here because it`s not the best neighborhood, instead of downtown," said Ruth Smith, the pet grooming business' owner.

"You`re always going have your critics and we expect that," counters Mayor Leighton.

In the control room, the Mayor demonstrated how in just four seconds, a camera can home in on a pedestrian so tight you can see he`s wearing a cast.

Last week, Wilkes-Barre police credited the cameras for helping catch a man breaking into a student's apartment near King's College.

Last September, police nabbed 32 people on drug charges in Operation Square Deal, and police say public square surveillance cameras made it possible.

"It's an asset that you really can`t place a number on, that`s how valuable it is," says the mayor.

The city says the system cost $3.5 million over five years, to install, maintain the cameras, and staff the control center.

The money came largely from state government grants. $2 million came from the so-called casino money grants from the state`s cut of profits at the Mohegan Sun Casino.

"It`s not costing the (city) taxpayers any money," says the Mayor.

"It`s still taxpayer funds no matter how you slice it, and it still doesn`t work," said Frank Sorick, the head of the Wilkes-Barre Taxpayers Association, and the surveillance systems most vocal critic.

Sorick claims it failed last month on Public Square, when crooks reportedly held up teens for their iPhones.

"The teenagers handed over their cell phones directly under a Hawkeye camera." said Sorick,  "It saw nothing."

And some Wilkes-Barre crime victims will point out they have no cameras at all near their homes or businesses.

Mayor Leighton says people and businesses can request a camera in their part of the city.

If police agree there is a need, one can be moved.

Critics say the system's cost could cloud Hawkeye's future.

With a $200,000 wi-fi bill due at the end of the year, plus cash needed to pay people to monitor the system, and maintain the cameras, Wilkes-Barre will have to come up with more state or federal grants to keep it running without taking money from an already strapped city budget.