Erlich moved to the city's Spenard section, a residential and commercial neighborhood, in 1969. At first, it was everything Erlich had hoped. But the area started to decline in the late 1970s after workers from the Alaskan pipeline project began pouring into Anchorage.
Erlich has spent much of the last ten years trying to rid his neighborhood of the prostitutes, drug dealers, and after-hours gambling and drinking clubs that have made life for the 12,000 residents of this middle class community more and more intolerable. To fight the bad guys, Erlich convinced the residents of Spenard to arm themselves - not with guns, but with VHS video cameras and the latest in computer technology.
Erlich formed the Spenard Community Patrol in 1992. To enhance the group's effectiveness, he purchased, with his own money, the Intel Corp.'s Smart Video Recorder, a package of computer hardware and software that allows a PC to store video from a regular VHS tape on its hard drive.
Erlich had some idea what his group would be up against, because this was not his first declaration of war against crime. In 1985, he had organized residents into the Spenard Action Committee. They used the less sophisticated cameras and video recorders available at that time to patrol the streets, targeting brothels. The pictures and video were never actually sent to police or distributed around the neighborhood, but the mere presence of flash photographers at night was enough to scare many johns away, explains Erlich.
"There was usually about a half dozen of us sitting out there with our cameras," Erlich notes. "We'd sit out there for six to eight hours. It was a slow process of taking back our streets one night at a time."
The effort paid off. With the help of police enforcement actions, they succeeded in cutting the number of brothels from forty-four to six in about eighteen months. Then, believing that the battle had largely been won, the group disbanded in 1988.
With the group dispersed, though, the brothels began to propagate. The new patrol expanded its operation, targeting not just prostitutes but also drug dealers, gamblers, and after-hours drinking clubs.
Patrols were set up every Friday and Saturday night, when neighbors would hit the streets from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. with cameras and VHS video recorders.
The video was then transferred by cable into Erlich's IBM-clone 486 PC, where the images were digitized. Using the computer, Erlich could carefully edit the video frame by frame until he found a quality close-up of a suspected drug dealer or prostitute taped the night before. Hard copies of the photos were then printed on paper and circulated to police and business owners in the neighborhood. "It was beneficial in that it provided the police officers and detectives with information to begin building a case," says Steven H. Warner, a sergeant with the Anchorage Police Department's crime prevention unit.
In addition, license plates of those soliciting drug dealers or prostitutes were recorded and stored in Erlich's computer, helping the group identify customers. Erlich also published a newsletter periodically that ran photographs of street activity and told the neighborhood what the community patrol was doing.
The photographs helped many business owners, Erlich says. For example, Erlich explains that some prostitutes were taking jobs as hotel maids and then using the rooms for late night business after their supervisors had gone home. Armed with computer-provided pictures of suspected prostitutes, hotel managers could find out which maids were cleaning the bedrooms and which ones were conducting other business.
In another case, the high-tech community patrol helped police capture a burglary suspect who was videotaped while robbing two or three local stores, Erlich says. He was able to edit the video from the stores' CCTVs and provide police with quality pictures of the suspect.
The computer-aided security patrols have done a lot to clean up Spenard. While the neighborhood still suffers from crime, Erlich says that street prostitutes and drug dealers are rarely seen and many after-hours clubs have closed their doors. There are only about ten brothels still in operation.
The patrol still operates in Spenard, although Erlich is no longer directly involved. In addition, the success in Spenard has spurred on other neighborhood watch groups throughout the city, police say.
"I would characterize Spenard as a better community today than it was five to six years ago," says Sergeant Warner. "Crime definitely went down in Spenard and I would attribute that somewhat to the community patrol. They were quite high-tech."
(For more information: Call Intel's FaxBACK Information Service, 800/525-3019.)
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|Title Annotation:||electronic crime-fighting methods of Spenard Community Patrol in Alaska|
|Author:||Kirch, John F.|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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