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February 09, 2009

The Higher Ground

Here's looking at you, kid.

by Guy Martin

The Daily Traveler first noticed the New York City Police Department's spidery, cool-white Sky Watch when it was deployed in Times Square, just around the corner from the offices, a few months back.  We figured it was a prompt and reasonable civil defense response to the threat emanating from our very own spa and beauty editors' desks, where there are multi-million-dollar stockpiles of unguents and astringents that, as we know from the TSA, can be transformed into a dirty bomb just like that!

Incredibly, it turned out that we were wrong.  The anti-terror logic for the deployment of Sky Watch in midtown Manhattan was the target-ness of Times Square itself, a beloved polyglot perennial on the al-Qaeda hit list.

Having a Sky Watch keep an eye out over your neighborhood is a little like having the top half of a Transformer--the part with the ray-gun eyes and the little compartment for the world-saving anime dude in the forehead--staked out next to your desk.  It's fun.  And funny!  But it's also a little like having a new and extremely attentive bird of prey watching you 24/7.

Here's what we know:  It's hard to turn a roiling big city into a Panopticon. London has famously tried it; the city is festooned with some 500,000-plus CCTV cameras.  Notably, the King's Cross train station cameras helped to identify the 7/7 London Underground attackers for the homegrown Yorkshire boys that they were.  Useful as that knowledge was (and is) for law enforcement and for society at large, CCTV surveillance is by definition an analytic, after-the-fact tool.  Obviously, the presence of a camera plays no role in deterring any bad actor armed with the notion of a glorious suicide.      

Sky Watch, a two-story-tall mobile platform of observation and intel-gathering--bearing three highly articulate cameras and an uplink to HQ--has a distinct crime-management-and-deterrence aspect to it when it's towed on to your block.  In short, Sky Watch bristles with lights, antennae, mics, and general mean-ass black glass.  It looks scary as heck.  Which, in fact, is what deterrence is all about:  Scare them witless, and they will not come.

The NYPD has leased two of the $40,000-to-$100,000 units and hopes eventually to have five.  The plan is to put the units into neighborhoods where there are crime spikes or serious crowd control/counter-terror problems.  (Christmas in Rockefeller Center, for instance.)  To date, Sky Watch has done duty in Dumbo and Williamsburg, which suffered nighttime crime spikes last year, in Harlem, where there was a murder spike, and, obviously, around Times Square on New Year's Eve.

"It literally gives us the high ground for observation and as a high visibility deterrent," says Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, Commissioner Ray Kelly's right hand and one of the team of NYPD security architects who deploy countersnipers around Times Square on New Year's Eve.

When Sky Watch was around the corner from the office, we kept daydreaming that the NYPD would roll out the bottom half, the Transformer's trademark rocket-propelled feet.  That way, the Sky Watch could actually take off and save us all from larger, more pertinent threats, such as the global financial collapse, or Rahm Emanuel's West-Wing Cerberus machinations.

But the rocket feet never showed up.  With Mayor Bloomberg cutting a cool billion from the budget, we doubt they will.

Further reading:
* Pictures of the Sky Watch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
* Dispatches: On the road


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