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When you think about one thing the City of Pasadena really needs, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind?

Is it affordable housing, fewer homeless people, more seafood restaurants…or a mobile “observation” tower?

If surveillance of our fellow citizens is your jam, get ready to celebrate.

That’s because on Thursday the Pasadena Police Department (PPD) went shopping for a new tactical toy. And no, this time it’s not more janky body cameras that never seem to clearly show the deadly weapons fleeing suspects had stuffed into their waistbands.

It’s not even a Lot Cop, the camera trailer occasionally favored by Target and Walmart stores.

Nope. The City is soliciting bids for a manned, bullet-resistant mobile tower bristling with high-res cameras, radios and video recording equipment that can be jacked-up in a neighborhood near you just in case there’s a parade. Or a concert.

Or an election.

This type of air conditioned pop-up cop blind never seems to make an appearance at golf tournaments, but going forward in Pasadena you never know.

The sales video below gives you a pretty good idea what the PPD is buying.

Dennis Haywood, the publisher of Pasadena Black Pages, has seen this surveillance product somewhere before.

“This city increasingly resembles a military state, complete with a tank owned by the police force,” writes Haywood. “The Pasadena police department already possesses a helicopter, mobile command units, and an array of weapons including batons, tasers, tear gas, and bullets. They have tactical forces, gang units, violence interventionists, trauma units, and more. Now, they seek to add a mobile tower that resembles a prison gun tower.”

“What war are they preparing for?”

Dennis Haywood, Pasadena Black Pages

“Having been to prison, I know what a gun tower looks like and what it feels like to see a rifle pointing down from one,” writes Haywood. “It’s reminiscent of Gestapo tactics. Soon, we might see permanent towers installed in certain parts of the Northwest community.”

“The city’s release states, ‘The tower must offer ballistic protection,'” observes Haywood. “What war are they preparing for?”

We reached out to PPD Chief Eugene Harris to get Haywood’s question answered. This was his response:

“The mobile observation tower is a highly visible, resource multiplier. We will use it to provide elevated, broader fields of view during major events such as the Rose Parade, Rose Bowl, and surrounding area events, especially those with large crowds. It will also be used in areas such as shopping centers as a crime prevention element in our efforts to combat organized retail theft and other related criminal activity.”

But Harris’ spin on how police towers impact criminal activity, and particularly retail crime, can be at odds with law enforcement’s experience in other municipalities.

For example, when SkyWatch towers were deployed in New York’s Brooklyn borough, retail crime did noticeably drop near the tower locations. But that good news was countered by an increase in shop crime elsewhere.

According to one of the officers on duty at a SkyWatch tower in Brooklyn who was interviewed by City Limits: “This can’t stop crime,” he said. “It just gets displaced.”

And there is little logic for the use of a surveillance tower placed anywhere along the 5½-mile Rose Parade route. As any Rose Parade goer will attest, there are already plenty of effective and more subtle security measures in place for this remarkably crime-free event.

A PPD cop with a radio, thermos, pair of binoculars and an upper grandstand ticket would be a more cost effective way to monitor the non-existent Rose Parade crime wave.

Speaking of cost, we’d like to know if funding for the tower is coming out of the City’s general fund, opioid settlement money or some type of cop equipment grant. A spokesperson for the City of Pasadena said they were “trying to find that out.”

So what is the actual use case for acquiring an “observation” tower?

Cop towers with the “ballistic protection” (i.e., bulletproofing) specs outlined by PPD are not inexpensive. A basic, no-frills, non-bulletproof model typically costs cities a minimum of $75,000 to $100,000 just for the mobile tower infrastructure. That’s before adding any bulletproofing, cameras, recording equipment, computers or radios which could easily add another $30,000 to $50,000 to the price tag. And if police departments add technology like automatic facial recognition or license plate readers to the tab, the sky’s the limit.

So what is the actual use case for acquiring an “observation” tower? That would be to park it in rough neighborhoods, or places where homeless people congregate, to deter violent crime through intimidation.

And that correlates precisely with Dennis Haywood’s comments.

Pasadena already has deployed the controversial ShotSpotter gunshot detection system in Northwest Pasadena. As reported in Pasadena Now and in the Pasadena Star-News, the rationale for ShotSpotter was and still remains deterrence. Deterrence, that is, within a 3-square mile marginalized neighborhood.

But as resident Michael Williams said during a Pasadena City Council meeting in 2021, the problem is the social impact of funding more and more police technology at the expense of investing in community programs.

“We cannot police our way out of this issue,” said Williams. “Yet you try to tap dance by passing a bill that gives over $600,000 in three years to a device, a system by ShotSpotter, instead of giving that money to the community.”

In Brooklyn, a customer in a coffee shop within view of an NYPD tower summed up the use case for the product this way: “It’s good, it’s more security. Especially in a Black neighborhood—they give us the guns to kill each other, but this can stop some of it.”

There we have the actual reason Pasadena wants to buy a surveillance tower. And, remarkably, it’s the same reason prisons have guard towers: deterrence through highly visible intimidation.

Our concern is how far down this road Pasadena appears willing to go.

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/240n

Phil Hopkins

Phil is the Associate Publisher of Local News Pasadena. He is a 35-year resident of the city and his favorite local delicacy is the Combo Grinder at Connal's.
Email: [email protected]

5 Comments

  1. It was reported that the guy setting off the firecrackers near Washington and Allen was nabbed with the help of ShotSpotter. That area is NOT in NW Pasadena. So perhaps ShotSpotter is being used in a wider area? Or perhaps “NW Pasadena” needs to be defined?

    • ShotSpotter is not deployed as far as Allen. The system’s boundaries are Montana St. in the north, Hill Ave. to the east and the 210 Freeway in the south and west. For reference, Hill is seven blocks west of Allen.

  2. I know exactly where Hill and Allen are as I live in that area. It was reported in the Pasadena Star-News article about the arrest that the explosions had been picked up by ShotSpotter. Was this incorrectly reported? I’d like an explanation. I have a vague recollection explosions were being reported on Nextdoor months ago near Hill and Washington .

    • You may want to ask the Star-News if they verified what the PPD spokesperson claimed happened.

      • Today’s PSN article clarified somewhat – apparently Shotspotter was picking up sounds of explosions around Pasadena for the last year. The guy was actually caught in the act by PPD near Washington/Allen and has pleaded no contest to the charges.

        In the meantime, thanks for informing about the observation tower. Surveillance state, here we come.

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