Sky Watch: NYPD's mobile surveillance towers


This twenty-foot retractable watchtower is dubbed "Sky Watch" according to Animal New York. It's used by the NYPD to monitor areas where crime is spiking...which means that it's currently just a few stops West of me in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where a recent spate of robberies and muggings have plagued the neighborhood.

If these mobile towers were permanent fixtures in the city I might be more upset by them, but New York's roving bands of police officers through the Operation Impact project do seem to be keeping crime down. And while I find irresponsible police as frustrating and frightful as anyone, I've come to view a pair of officers walking through neighborhoods keeping the peace as a good thing.

Sky Watch Deployed In Williamsburg []

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  1. It really isn’t the people so much who are the problem (though you do have quite a few of the ‘occasional’ a**holes) but when the police start walking the beat regularly they get to know the people, and thats really what more people are finding are the problem they aren’t people anymore to be treated with respect, but immediate potential criminals to be taken down with force serving justice swiftly without even finding out if the person or actions even warranted such a show of force. When any sort of authority sees you as a person first potential criminal somewhere down the list after that, the reactions from them tend to be much more acceptable for everyone.

  2. these are frequently seen around the dallas metroplex in mall parking lots, special events, etc.

    i usually find myself wondering if they’re even occupied ..and if they are, what’s the response time for getting another cop to the scene while the watcher sits there and

  3. but New York’s roving bands of police officers through the Operation Impact project do seem to be keeping crime down.

    Sure we have order, but at what price!

  4. I’ve noticed a few of these in the Washington DC area. I’m thinking about putting one in front of my house.

  5. I have no problem with this in a ‘neighborhood block watch’ sort of role, as long as they aren’t peeping in people’s apartment windows with the thing.

    It seems more likely they’ll roll it out at large protest events to do air-traffic-controller type dispatch to keep in line the kids whose hair is too long or something.

  6. Sorry, but criminals are not going to be frightened of a guy eating donuts up in a glorified cherrypicker.

    What they need is a 20 foot tall Patlabor style mecha. The coolness of that would far outweigh the civil liberties issues.

  7. Careful, Joel. Even a highly qualified statement that some law enforcement officers somewhere might under some circumstances be less than completely anathema (or fascist, or Stasi-esque, or corrupt, etc.) is going to rile up the commentariat.

  8. There’s something both menacing and ridiculous about this thing. It’s as if the cops are trying to intimidate the populace by sitting in a little box on a crane, and yet it also makes them look fearful and paranoid.

    I bet an angry mob could tip one of these things over without too much trouble.

    Why not put the cops on the street — where they can have freedom of movement, and also talk to people face to face, instead of from a height, thru dark glass and, presumably, some kind of loudspeaker — like a drive-thru bank teller or McDonalds worker?

  9. If crime is really that bad, I’d think that the last thing I’d want would be to be stuck in a tiny box, several yards above the street, for hours on end.

  10. Remember that a lot of crime, especially in marginal areas, is opportunity-based. Basically, the pressure required to push drug dealers, prostitutes, crackheads, and muggers to a different area is actually fairly small: if done correctly, police can work with neighborhoods and the city government to move opportunistic criminals out of an area, and then have residents and the city work to keep the area clean afterwards. As another commenter noted, these are used in Dallas to keep watch on parking lots where crime rates are high, but I’d like to see a few in our neighborhoods as well.

  11. @ #8

    They’ve talked about deploying these to monitor the park near my neighborhood in Inwood/Washington Heights. Police can’t patrol the park on a constant basis, but having a spotting tower is a good way to keep watch on people lurking in the park after it’s allegedly closed. There’s gang activity in the park (mugging, drug dealing, and battles between rival gangs), and police knowing when it’s happening is a good thing for residents.

    FYI, “angry mobs” are not exactly common.

    And to everyone else commenting negatively on cops, I was mugged recently in an area where one of these would have made a real difference. But since there wasn’t one, they eventually did make an arrest because another victim spotted the mugger, ID’d him, and I confirmed it.

    All of the residents of my neighborhood I’ve spoken to want at least one of these for watching the park. I say give them night vision scopes. I’d like to be able to walk in my neighborhood after the streets get quiet, thanks.

  12. I go to college in New Orleans, and they had these deployed last year for Mardi Gras. Given the crowds of thousands upon thousands, it makes sense to have a few eye’s above the crowd for directing officers. With such a press of bodies, that’s an application that would make this practical.

    In a neighborhood like it’s depicted in the post, however, it just seems like a less mobile equivalent of a parked cop car. About as functional as police on segways, as far as I’m concerned (see:

  13. And to everyone else commenting negatively on cops, I was mugged recently in an area where one of these would have made a real difference.

    Why weren’t you carrying your gun?

  14. “Safer neighborhood, but at what price..?”

    Clearly you do not live in a neighborhood that has gone from safe and chill to machete attack gang initiations in less than a year. I have. It’s fucking scary, dude. A lot scarier than having two uniforms watching me from above.

    So, I’ll smoke my joint on my roof instead of on the sidewalk.. that’s the price I am paying.

    Well worth it.

  15. We have these around the Charlotte area as well. They seem to be more of a party marker for the local PD, rather than a crime deterrent.

    Of course, I guess a bunch of cups drinking coffee and dunkin’ donuts is at least a little bit of a crime deterrent…

  16. @ # 14 –

    I don’t own a gun.

    Someone gets mugged, and you make a joke out of it? Or some sort of political point? Yes, the social separation of the internet allows you to act like a total shit, and there’s probably no real repercussions for you. Bravo.

  17. Well good for you urban U.S.A.! Now all you need is a fence and Snake Pliskin so we can play Escape from Inglewood.
    In the meantime there are two police officers playing rock, paper, scissors over who’s going to climb down that contraption to go yell at the local Starbucks employee for free coffee.

    That’s another thing. What is the procedure with these watchtowers anyway? Is an officer allowed to leave one unattended? How many cops are in there? If something serious happens, and there are two cops in the tower, and there should always be one remaining inside the tower, will the other one confront the situation by him/her-self, or does that constitute too much of a risk? In other words, if you get raped at gunpoint in front of one of these towers with two cops in them, what are the odds they just call it in because they are not allowed to leave the watchtower unattended?

  18. I could see a benefit to these in large functions when getting above the crowd could be helpful in order to coordinate cops on the street.

    For anything else though, it seems like it would just encourage cops to sit around and disconnect from the neighborhood more than it would help. You stick one of these at one end of the park/street and crime moves to the other end of the park/street or to a nearby alley.

    The real benefit to having cops in neighborhoods has always been that they interact with people. The folks running convenience stores, mom and pop grocery stores, neighborhood watch type people etc… They make them selves accessible to the people in the neighborhood and those people help them keep and eye on the negative elements.

    It seems that far too often nowadays we end up focusing on the high tech fancy solution instead of going for the simple, effective solution. Do you want to make a neighborhood safer? Have cops walking the beat and interacting with folks (being part of the neighborhood), not sitting up on top of some cranes or zooming around the area on segways (iirc NYC saw these improvements first hand when they had officers park their cars and walk around neighborhoods instead of just patrolling from the cars the way they had been).

    The geek and gearhead in me likes the idea (although I think having a way to exit from the thing while it’s in it’s elevated position should be added), but I have some doubts as to whether it’s really a good use of the money (for more than 1 or 2 that might be used in large crowd control situations).

  19. The first time I saw one of these was at Trinity Site back in 2005. It was kind of cool actually, given that I was already in an “escorted by many cops” security environment, it didn’t seem creepy or out of place at all, just kind of like an awesome high-tech (and high cost to taxpayers) insta-treehouse.


  20. @ # 19 – There are foot and car patrols where these towers are. What they’re good for is high crime areas where an areal view is helpful in pinpointing suspicious activity.

    Scenario – There’s a wooded park where gangs are fighting late at night. Covering it effectively might require lots of cops on foot all the time (no room for cars). Being able to spot people fighting in the park from above, radio a nearby patrol car, and get some backup, and then break up the fight is the goal.

    That’s how the towers are best used. In a world with unlimited budget, they’d just hire more cops, but NYC is haivng a huge budget shortfall, so making more efficient use of cops already on the payroll while keeping crime down requires inventive measures.

    All in all, this is a good idea. Some people are always going to hate cops. However, they caught the guy who mugged me, and evidence suggests he’s have kept doing what he was doing if no one stopped him. I was not his only victim. People in my neighborhood are pretty happy with that.

  21. @ #21 Eh, my point is that the setup (from what I can see in the photos) does not look like something you could deploy quickly so all it would do is push suspicious activity in other directions.

    I just don’t see this being a good use of a limited budget because (as with CCTV cameras), it’s stationary and it restricts what the officers can see. For instance, in the photo it looks like it’s near the opening to an alley or small street, but it’s far enough back that any officer inside couldn’t see more than a few feet into it. Instead of an officer who can move arond and could just go down the alley if necessary, someone could get attacked and the officer might not even notice.

    In your case, it might mean getting mugged a block down the street on your way to the store and not in the park. In your fight example, people would probably move down to where they can’t be seen by the authorities (presumably they would be fighting there in the first place because it’s fairly isolated).

    What’s worse, I can see these things taking the place of mobile patrols so instead of having cops patrolling the park and the surrounding area, they sit in the tower and while the area immediately around them might become safer, the areas further away, out of sight would become even more dangerous.

  22. The setup in the photo probably isn’t the best use of it, but sometimes just knowing an area is being watched, or might be watched can keep down crime, and those things are visible. And being able to use it in multiple locations on relatively short notice seems like a good idea.

    I think cops would rather patrol than sit in one of those things for hours.

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