Police Increasingly Use Observation Towers to Eye Criminals

Is there really anyone behind the darkened windows?

Police departments across North Texas are increasingly using portable two-story observation towers to watch for criminals in busy parking lots, but an NBC 5 investigation found policies vary from city to city on where the towers are placed and how they are used.

The devices, which cost $80,000 or more, are high-tech, hydraulic-powered and climate-controlled.

Arlington police officer John Millstead demonstrated how they work to NBC 5 Investigates.

“You’ll notice we have an air conditioner, we have a heater,” he said as the tower was raised for a view of multiple parking lots in the city's entertainment district. “We have emergency descent.”

Arlington has 11 of the towers, more than any other city. The towers are better known by their brand name, SkyWatch, manufactured by FLIR Systems of Wilsonville, Oregon.

"I'll look for pickup trucks that have tools in the back because they are prime targets for a thief,” Millstead said as he looked out the darkened window.

Police in many suburbs also have these towers, but how well do they work? Many people — even perhaps some thieves — think there's rarely a real person inside.

Millstead said that would be a mistake.

"No, that's not true,” he said. “We actually have a whole pool of volunteers who love going up in the SkyWatch towers."

Arlington police send trained volunteers into the towers while other cities, such as Allen and Garland, only allow officers inside.

NBC 5 Investigates asked for detailed records regarding the use of the towers from eight of the largest cities in North Texas. The documents show procedures vary from city to city.

Arlington, for example, has a detailed policy outlining their use.

"We follow crime trends,” Millstead said. “Every week we'll check the previous week's crime trends. We'll sit down and discuss where we think they should go using crime trends for the most part."

But other cities, including Garland, Carrollton, and Plano, have no written policy about where and how they deploy the towers.

Allen police said they place the towers "where the property owner/manager ask[s] for the unit."

Randall Butler, a police officer and criminal justice instructor at The University of Texas at Arlington said the towers do work, but he said the main purpose should be to prevent crime and not for public relations.

"It has to be crime-driven,” he said. “They only do it because it's crime-driven by statistics."

Asked where they place the towers, some cities including Dallas, Frisco and Plano, provided long lists of specific locations. Yet others, including Fort Worth, Allen, and Flower Mound, said they keep no records on where they put the towers.

"The primary purpose of the SkyBox is deterrence, that's No. 1,” Butler said. “So when you see one in a parking lot and you're a criminal, you're probably going to move on somewhere else."

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