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Mobile tower helped cops during NATO protests

The TerraHawk $227064 “mobile surveillance tower” is equipped with infrared conventional surveillance technology.

The TerraHawk, a $227,064 “mobile surveillance tower,” is equipped with infrared and conventional surveillance technology.

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:52AM

A $227,064 “mobile surveillance tower” — hastily purchased by the city under a no-bid contract to take advantage of an expiring federal transit security grant — helped Chicago Police officers control roving crowds of demonstrators and provocateurs and protect Metra trains during the NATO summit, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Manufactured by Dallas-based TerraHawk LLC, the patented technology is described in sole-source procurement documents as a “drivable mobile surveillance tower” that can be “deployed by one person” sitting inside the vehicle and “fully operational” within two minutes.

It looks like a van with an attached cab topped by a camera — called an “observation capsule” — that extends in the air to an “eye level of 25 feet” using a mechanism that resembles a folding gate.

The TerraHawk is equipped with “infrared and conventional” surveillance-camera technology. It provides a 360-degree observation platform pivotal in mass transit incidents and in “detecting large crowd movements and disturbances officers on the ground” cannot see.

“It only takes one officer to operate the vehicle and platform, making the platform a unique force-multiplier,” Marvin J. Shear, executive officer of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Administration, wrote in a March 7 letter attached to documents that justified the no-bid purchase.

“The TerraHawk will provide an essential new layer of security — deterrence, detection, response — for Chicago transit operations and assets. It will also provide Chicago Police Department special teams with enhanced capability to intervene in difficult situations. … It will provide command staff with confidence that officers can be quickly positioned to observe potential life-threatening situations in real-time and to immediately react and relay critical information to emergency response personnel.”

Chicago spent years searching for a mobile surveillance tower for use in “observing and controlling crowds” at Taste of Chicago and other events and disaster scenes, only to have trouble identifying both funding and suitable technology.

After settling on the TerraHawk this spring, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration rushed the sole source purchase to take advantage of an expiring, 2007 federal grant earmarked for mass transit security. The city also hoped to use the new surveillance tool during the NATO summit.

The van the city ordered was not delivered in time for last week’s arrival of world leaders. But TerraHawk sent Chicago an identical “loaner vehicle and personnel” for use during an entire week coinciding with the NATO summit, according to Laura Robinson, director of business development for TerraHawk.

“If there’s a situation on the ground, the officer watching from our capsule has the ability to dispatch ground troops,” Robinson said.

“If the situation changes, the officer can pull the tower down and move to another location. That allows rapid response to any changing situation and allows the Chicago Police Department to move its assets, [as they did when] the protest planned for Boeing” was not as large as expected.

Robinson refused to say whether the TerraHawk helped Chicago Police diffuse a potentially volatile standoff at Cermak and Michigan between baton-wielding police officers and demonstrators who tried to provoke them.

She would only say, “It was used to watch areas where they were concerned about security breaches and loaned to other branches of law enforcement” assisting Chicago Police.

In an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times, Steve Georgas, deputy chief of the Police Department’s Office of International Relations, said the TerraHawk was “primarily deployed to help with the Metra security plan” to protect commuter trains.

“It has some sophisticated camera equipment that allowed them to help identify possible groups that may have tried to attempt to breach the fence but it, along with the helicopter, was instrumental in identifying groups heading toward the fence so we could deploy properly,” Georgas wrote.

Until now, stories about NATO summit technology have focused on the device the Chicago Police Department purchased, but never used that emits a piercing high-pitched sound to disperse crowds.

Attention has also been focused on the facial shields distributed to 3,100 police officers assigned to summit duty to protect them from objects thrown by the demonstrators.

But the surveillance van has the potential to be a powerful supplement to Chicago’s Big Brother network of more than 10,000 public and private surveillance cameras, already billed as the most extensive and integrated in the nation.

In the procurement documents, the company noted that the majority of CTA L platforms in the Central Business District are 19 to 24 feet high. The TerraHawk rises 25 feet above ground.

“This vantage point provides officers with a tactical advantage in observing platform operations, crowds and in responding to any incident on or near a platform,” the company stated.

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