Monessen police get help in keeping an eye on drug trade
Monessen drug dealers beware: Someone may be watching.
The city police chief and a Monessen businessman recently installed a network of video cameras throughout the city, hoping to thwart drug sales, particularly heroin.
Police Chief John Mandarino has teamed with Ron Mozer of Crystalline Technologies, LLC, in Monessen to keep a watchful eye over the city. Mandarino and other officers can now monitor high traffic areas from the police station.
“My pet name for this project is ‘Neighborhood Watch',” Mandarino said with a smile. “But in this watch program, you use cameras instead of people. Cameras don't lie or exaggerate. Cameras see exactly what they see.”
Mandarino aims to eradicate drug sales altogether, citing success in huge cities like Detroit and Chicago with camera systems. Police have more than a dozen cameras installed along city streets as well as outside a handful of businesses and private residences, he said.
Some locations are made public knowledge to deter illegal activity; some aren't. Either way, police can monitor an area at all hours.
“What happens is crime drops where the cameras are and the actors move to other areas,” Mandarino said. “As far as I know, nobody else in the area is doing anything like this.”
So far, it's worked.
Monessen police have already nabbed numerous perpetrators — from drug buyers to vandals — through camera footage. Police have also collected probable cause used to obtain search warrants and conduct undercover purchases, Mandarino said.
In September, Monessen police arrested four males for possession of a controlled substance and other drug violations thanks to camera observations.
“It's already proved just as efficient as putting a police officer on a street corner 24 hours a day,” Mandarino said.
The cameras, Mandarino said, solve another longstanding conundrum: residents who call in to report suspected drug activity but refuse to cooperate with investigations.
“One of things I learned is people don't want to get involved because they're afraid of retaliation, and they don't want to report activity, give descriptions or even license plate numbers,” Mandarino said. “This way, these people don't have to get involved other than putting cameras on their property.”
Mandarino vowed the cameras will not cost city taxpayers. Police cameras are paid for exclusively from the drug fund, which is cash confiscated during arrests or searches. Mandarino said his department has seized approximately $22,000 in drug money since his June promotion.
“We petition the courts for (the cash) and eventually makes its way back here,” Mandarino explained. “The best part is we're using actual drug money to solve the problem.
“A lot of things we buy as a police department are finite like Tasers and ammo … this is something we can have as long as the cameras are functioning — that's a big return on our investment. For somewhere around $400, we're watching an area 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future.”
Most camera locations remain unspecified so suspects won't know they're being watched. However, one well-known location is at the corner of Tenth Street and Knox Avenue — a section of the city known as “The Wall.”
After cameras were installed more than four months ago, “open air” drug activity disappeared, Mandarino said.
“The obvious traffic and drug dealing ceased immediately,” he said.
One of the first businesses police reached out to was the OKAY Lodge No. 697, on the corner of Knox Avenue and Tenth Street. The building now has cameras inside and outside its walls.
Trustee Willie Bronson said loitering outside the club has been mostly eradicated. Police can also monitor Ninth Street Park, another location of high-drug activity, after trustees and police worked out a joint agreement.
“So far, it's a win-win situation,” Bronson said. “We wanted to make sure we had no disruptions. Our patrons are enjoying themselves and they feel safer.”
Bronson said club officers are able to monitor cameras located inside the lodge, while Monessen police can access the outdoor feeds. Club members no longer mind the idea of possibly being on camera, he said.
“At the beginning, the patrons were looking around all the time, but now they just go about their business,” Bronson said. “No one's complaining and we feel it's for the betterment of everybody.”
In the meantime, Mozer is pitching camera systems to local businesses after selling Mandarino on the idea this summer.
“Ron came in and asked, ‘What can I do to help you with the drug problem?' and believe me, not many people walk through our door and ask how they can help us,” Mandarino said with a laugh.
A typical system with installation runs about $1,100 for four cameras, network and a high definition video recorder that stores a month's worth of video surveillance, Mozer said.
“If it's a problem form a police perspective, then our drug money can pay for that,” Mandarino said. “If it's something a business wants, then the business is responsible.”
The systems can be tied into Internet service to monitor on phones and laptop computers and provide live feeds to Monessen police. The footage can also be stored on a computer hard drive.
Mozer said he will continue installing a broadband network around the city to expand the coverage area. The idea started from feedback from other business owners, he said.
“Earlier this year, I put together a survey asking: ‘What can be done to stimulate business within the city? What's it going to take to turn us around?'” Mozer said.
Mozer said the two problems were overwhelmingly cited: drugs and crime.
“My goal as a Monessen resident and business owner is to rid Monessen of its drug problem,” Mozer said. “Thus far, I've taken a financial hit, but I hope to turn it in to a profitable businesses.”
One of the businesses that took Mozer up on his offer is Union Pharmacy. The Donner Avenue establishment was robbed in September for the second time in five months.
Angela Borrello, who operates the pharmacy, said installing the outdoor cameras and linking them to the police department was an easy decision.
“Being hooked up to the police was a big selling point and it's worth the investment,” Borrello said, adding she can watch the cameras after hours from home. “It's not outrageously priced and it's given us peace of mind. That's the big thing. ... I really hope it ends up being the solution.”
Both Mozer and Mandarino said they're not concerned with people vandalizing cameras because would-be perpetrators are being filmed.
“We try to protect the cameras and always have one looking at the others,” Mandarino said. “If you walk up to a camera and try to shoot it, it's got you shooting it right up to the time that it goes black.”
Mandarino said those thinking cameras are an invasion of privacy should take a different perspective.
“Some people can call it ‘Big Brother' — that's just the way of the world right now — but anything I can see (at the police station), a normal person can see on the street or outside their window,” he said. “If I wasn't doing anything wrong, I'd be happy to have a camera in my neighborhood that makes sure no one is selling drugs on the street.”
Mandarino said he hopes to keep expanding video surveillance until drug dealers leave the city altogether.
“You're never going to totally stop the drugs, but you can make it more difficult for dealers and force them to go somewhere else,” he said. “That's our goal: Move the dealers out of the city.
“Our project is still it's in its infancy and it's already worked better than I'd ever anticipated.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.