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Surveillance cameras prove worth in Valley, too

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 11:47 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Two new surveillance cameras are perched at the East Seventh Avenue and Ross Street intersection at the end of the Tarentum Bridge in Tarentum on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

Surveillance cameras aren't found only in big cities.

Cameras are scattered throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley, helping police solve everything from burglaries to claims over who had a green light at an intersection crash.

Allegheny Township has had portable cameras for five or six years, police Chief John Fontaine said. The township bought them after having problems in one of its parks.

When there's a problem in a particular location, police can put them up.

Fontaine said the cameras have been involved in vandalism and trespassing arrests.

“This system we have works well,” he said. “Our township is large and spread out. It's tough to justify mounting a camera in one location. We need the mobility of them because we're so large.”

More often, Fontaine said police rely on private surveillance cameras, such as those used by businesses to monitor parking lots. He guessed about 80 percent of businesses have them.

Besides crimes that happen on a business' property, the cameras also sometimes capture activities nearby.

“The businesses are very cooperative with us,” Fontaine said. “If there's an incident, we review their tapes and they give us the evidence we need.”

Freeport has had surveillance cameras since fall 2009, paid for with a $21,000 state grant.

It didn't take long for the cameras to prove their worth.

Early in 2010, cameras played a role in the arrests of a man for breaking into cars, and another for burglarizing houses.

In March 2010, police said they built a burglary case against a suspect “almost exclusively” on video evidence.

A Harrison man was seen on camera walking up the middle of Market Street at 3 a.m. Officers questioned him and sent him on his way. Later, they saw images of the man entering numerous vehicles over 90 minutes.

The man later pleaded guilty to theft from a motor vehicle and possession of a controlled substance.

In May 2010, cameras caught the movements of a Tarentum man, who subsequently was arrested for two burglaries on Fourth Street. He was later sentenced to about one to two years in jail.

Not always available

Some towns want cameras, but can't get them.

Cameras are on the wish list for Plum, chief Frank Monaco said.

While there are traffic cameras at certain intersection in Tarentum, they aren't in the neighborhoods.

“We don't have the resources or cameras to install in certain spots where trouble is happening,” Tarentum police Chief William Vakulick said.

Cameras could be useful in investigating car break-ins, criminal mischief cases and drug activity, but Vandergrift doesn't have them, police Chief Joe Caporali said.

“Would I want them? Sure. They would definitely be a useful item,” he said. “It's a matter of how to fund the cost and where to place them. If the funding was available, I'd definitely be interested.”

Without cameras of its own, Harrison police rely on private cameras, as well as those set up in Sheldon Park by the Allegheny County Housing Authority, police Chief Mike Klein said. Like Tarentum, Harrison also has traffic cameras at certain intersections of Freeport Road.

“I believe they're useful. They're absolutely useful,” Klein said. “There are many already out there. They're a significant role in today's law enforcement.”

Still, Klein said he favors using cameras when needed, rather than watching all the time.

“This isn't about Big Brother watching everybody out and about,” he said. “When you equate it to a specific task in a problem area or an investigation, that's where genuine and specific use comes into play.”

New Kensington has a surveillance camera on Ninth Street and Industrial Boulevard, police Chief Tom Klawinski said. It's mainly been used in investigating traffic crashes, including two recently.

“It has come in handy several times,” he said. “We've had people claim to have red lights or green lights and with the camera, we've been able to prove otherwise.”

Police in Springdale Township asked for the help of New Kensington's traffic camera after a burglary, just on the chance it would reveal something useful.

“I was able to burn them a copy of everything that crossed the bridge in that 45-minute time period,” Klawinski said.

But how many cameras there are, and where they are, may be hard to fully know.

Some businesses do not publicize the presence of cameras, Klein said.

Authorities also aren't always willing or eager to divulge that information.

“If I have surveillance cameras in the right spots,” Klawinski said, “do I want people to know that?”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at brittmeyer@tribweb.com.

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