Tony Bizjak

Back-seat Driver: Land Park box on wheels is police surveillance device

Published: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 6:57 am

There is an ominous-looking box on wheels parked lately on Riverside Boulevard in Sacramento's Land Park, reader Ron Forsberg reports.

It has a tall pole and what appear to be two cameras mounted on top, pointed at the street. The lettering on the side says: Sacramento Police Department.

Forsberg asked: Is this "Big Brother" taking photos of license plates? His question is intriguing, given the current debate over surveillance drones and CIA data mining.

Police spokesman Doug Morse readily acknowledged the device is a surveillance tool with digital cameras that can take videos of cars, including license plates.

"It's a tool we use for what we consider hot spot policing," Morse said. "When we have identified areas where there are crime trends, we'll put (the trailer) out there in hopes of capturing surveillance video."

The city has three of the devices and has been using them for about two years. Police say they set them up them in public places. Whatever their cameras capture is considered a public event, Morse said. "It is marked heavily, so people know it is there."

He said a trailer has been positioned on Riverside near Third Avenue because there have been some recent property-related crimes in the area.

Morse declined to offer details. But the Police Department's online crime database shows there have been four home burglaries within a quarter-mile of that spot this year, including one last week.

Although the cameras can capture license plate numbers, California law disallows police from using cameras to cite drivers for speeding. Cameras can, however, legally be used at intersections for red-light violations.

The police sometimes also use the trailer at public events, such as in Old Sacramento during the recent Memorial Day weekend music festival, Morse said.

Buses, trains and iPads

Once upon a time, when you rode a bus or train, you looked out the window at the scenery, read a book, or chatted with the person in the next seat.

A study by DePaul University this week found that more than half of Amtrak riders – at any given minute – now are engaged with their iPads, laptops or smartphones. Some are listening to music or watching movies. Others are doing work.

Overall, the study found that 80 percent of Amtrak riders use a digital device at some point during their ride. Buses and planes show similar increases in riders using Internet-connected devices in the last few years.

DePaul's researchers say public transit companies such as Capitol Corridor trains and long-distance buses like Megabus are gaining riders specifically because they are adding free WiFi and other tech-friendly amenities. That makes the ride more productive, if not quite as scenic.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.

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