PEORIA, Ill. -- This industrial city, hard hit by the recession, has found a new, low-budget way to fight crime: Park an unmanned, former Brink's truck bristling with video cameras in front of the dwellings of troublemakers.
Police here call it the Armadillo. They say it has restored quiet to some formerly rowdy streets. Neighbors' calls for help have dropped sharply. About half of the truck's targets have fled the neighborhood.
"The truck is meant to be obnoxious and to cause shame," says Peoria Police Chief Steven Settingsgaard.
The Armadillo has helped alleviate problems like drug dealing that can make neighborhoods unlivable.
An Armored Truck Gets Tough On Crime
Police in Peoria, Ill., have a new weapon in the war on drugs and nuisance complaints. It's a 12,000 pound Brinks truck full of video cameras, affectionately known as the Armadillo.
Police got a call at 2:30 one morning from Mary Smith, a 58-year-old computer operator at a Butternut Bread Bakery. Fighting back tears, she asked for relief from her neighbors' incessant yelling.
She and her husband, Terry, 61, a Butternut baker, have lived in their home on North Wisconsin Avenue for 30 years, and have seen the neighborhood fall into drug trafficking. The police suggested using the Armadillo.
That weekend, the truck pulled up to the offending neighbor's house. A police officer knocked on the door and told the residents a nuisance report had been filed. Within 24 hours, the Smiths say, the house was quiet. The occupants moved out soon thereafter.
"The difference was like night and day," Mrs. Smith says. The landlord, Phil Schertz, credits the Armadillo.
"The ugliness of the Armadillo is what makes it unique," says Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. "A police car is not a particular stigma, but if people see that thing in front of your house, they know something bad is going on in there."
Peoria police acknowledge that the truck sometimes just shifts crime from one area to another. But it can disrupt illegal activities temporarily. Citizens appear to like the idea, and police say they have a four-week waiting list of requests for the Armadillo.
Peoria is a city of 114,000 about 170 miles southwest of Chicago. Amid layoffs at equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. and other companies, the city's unemployment rate has jumped to 10%, from about 6% a year ago. Crime has increased as the economy has declined, police say.
The biggest problem, as Peoria police see it, is drug trafficking that plagues pockets of the city marked by boarded windows, littered lawns and noise complaints.
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The 'Armadillo,' a former Brink's truck with video cameras patrolling Peoria.
In the summer of 2006, police were brainstorming ways to rattle a suspected drug dealer. They had exhausted traditional strategies, including undercover operations, and were left empty-handed and frustrated. They decided to park a retired police car in front of the suspect's house.
About 24 hours after the car had been put in place, all its windows had been smashed, the tires were flat and the body was dented.
"It was embarrassing to tow a police car," Chief Settingsgaard says. "But I saw it as a success because it was proof how much [the dealer] really disliked the police car's presence."
The dealer left the neighborhood soon after the incident; he was later arrested and convicted on a gun charge.
One summer night, Chief Settingsgaard was pulling out of police headquarters when he did a double take. Rusting in a corner of the police parking lot was a hulking Brink's truck. It had been purchased -- for a dollar -- to use in emergencies but had yet to be pressed into service. The chief thought it could be the perfect nuisance-deterrence vehicle, seemingly indestructible and inarguably an eyesore.
Over the next year, the 12,000 pounds of heavy metal got an extensive makeover, including about $10,000 in new equipment and repairs. It was outfitted with five infrared surveillance cameras, a padlocked hood, a locked gas cap, and protective screens over the head and tail lights.
A Peoria tire company installed foam-filled tires that can't go flat. Decals that say "PEORIA POLICE Nuisance Property Surveillance Vehicle" were pasted on all four sides of the white truck.
There were some bumps along the road. When Officer Elizabeth Hermacinski, 39, the force's nuisance-abatement officer and Armadillo driver, took the behemoth out for its first deployment in July 2008, the targeted troublemakers seemed to have gotten wind of the plan. In any case, they had parked cars in every available spot in front of the house.
So Ms. Hermacinski parked across the street, close enough to get the message across. "It's psychological warfare," she says.
The Armadillo is the opposite of an undercover operation. Its goal isn't making arrests, but alerting suspects that police are on to them, police say. The surveillance footage is rarely reviewed by the police and is saved for just a short time before it is erased. Still, the unit can have a significant impact.
This past July, Maggie Wren, 50, requested that the Armadillo pay a visit to her home. Police say her adult children and grandchildren were loitering on her front porch and leaving empty beer bottles in her yard. "Every time I wake up, there's something broken on my fence," she says.
Police parked the truck outside her house while she went away on vacation. Police say the porch remained quiet and empty while she was gone.
One recent afternoon, Officer Hermacinski was moving the Armadillo to a new spot. "It drives like a tractor," she said, yelling in order to be heard over the engine's roar.
She pulled the Armadillo to the curb of a white, one-story house with red siding suspected of being a drug house. She flipped on the surveillance cameras, hopped down from the truck and knocked on the door of the house. No one answered. Then she walked over to a waiting police cruiser, got in and drove away, leaving the Armadillo to do its job.