Taste of Chicago crowd being watched while they eat
Police testing high-tech observation platform
By Russell Working
Chicago Tribune reporter
9:44 PM CDT, July 5, 2008
A crowd gathered Saturday at Grant Park's Buckingham Fountain to watch a magician pull a coconut out of his derby.What might come as a surprise was that someone was probably watching the watchers via a nearby high-tech observation platform used by Chicago police.
The SkyWatch, which resembles a lifeguard tower on wheels, is being tested at the Taste of Chicago. The towers are used at the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Guantanamo Bay and the U.S.-Mexico border, according to their manufacturer, ICX Technologies of Arlington, Va.
The tower provides a 360-degree view, allowing police to see and quickly respond to problems that might develop in the crowd."Radio communication from sky to ground is also a benefit because it allows the officer to communicate quickly with the troops on the ground, providing them with descriptions and locations" of incidents, said Chicago police spokeswoman Monique Bond.
SkyWatch is equipped with infrared capability, surveillance equipment, lighting and a PA system, Bond said."We are evaluating its effectiveness as a crime-fighting strategy," she said.
Chicago police said the equipment is on loan. The Army recently bought 22 towers for $14 million for bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the company said.
Though it's unlikely the tower would help in the investigation of Thursday night's shootings near the festival, it could offer more security for an event that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. Officials said they were beefing up the number of uniformed and plainclothes officers at the festival because of the shootings.
Though much of Saturday's crowd seemed aware of the increased police presence, people appeared more focused on the food and drink.
"I've noticed more [police] horses here than last year. .. . . I didn't see many at all [last year]," said Adam Greenawalt, 26, of Goshen, Ind.
Evelyn Bonner, 41, of Florida and Fred Felton, 42, of the South Side were wandering around the festival in a happy daze Saturday after getting engaged the previous night. Felton said he wasn't impressed by "all the gadgets and bicycles and footmen and high towers.""I think what they need is more footmen walking around," he said.
Back by Buckingham Fountain, Robert Brown, 20, of Chicago glanced up at the darkened windows of the observation tower."We're being watched," he said. "That's good, I guess."
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