A Little Community Takes Page from Big Cities to Battle Crime

Jul. 3--SANBORN, Minn. -- The mooning was an act of outrageous protest. Recorded in all its glory last fall, it was transmitted onto the television screen in Judy Trebesch's office at City Hall. And while nearly everyone in this town of 417 people knows about the incident--and a few think they know the person attached to that bottom--the offense is accepted now as the price one must occasionally pay for the comfort of security.

Nine cameras eyeball Main Street and the only roads into Sanborn, a southwestern Minnesota town plopped among some of the most fertile soybean fields in America. There's a bank but no stoplight, no school, no grocer and, since the digital cops started keeping their 24/7 vigil last fall, not as much anxiety about crime.

"Things have calmed down pretty good," said Tom Platz, who runs Tom & Jerry's Corner Bar. From the cool darkness of his saloon, Platz, which is pronounced "plates," has a three-decade-long perspective of what goes on along Main Street--including a break-in that netted boxes of cigarettes and booze.

Right now, Platz likes what he sees--and doesn't see.

"I'm probably the only one up at 1 or 2 in the morning, and I don't see kids up squealing their tires and raising hell like they used to," Platz said.

In recent years, big cities--Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis and others--have embraced security cameras as a deputy or a snitch, of sorts, helping law enforcement monitor public activity in downtowns and on streets.

With nine cameras, or one for every 46 residents, Sanborn is establishing a new threshold in the fight against crime. (If Chicago, which has more than 2,000 security cameras, sought to match Sanborn's blanket coverage, it would need about 62,000 cameras.) And in such a small city, some might wonder just how many moments a secret can last before it's spilled at Tom & Jerry's or passed around at the pinochle game at City Hall.

But consider the point of view of the people of Sanborn. The Redwood County sheriff, in Redwood Falls, is 23 miles away. People here say they can't afford their own police force--it would cost well into six figures annually. And they're convinced through recent experience that rent-a-constable from a town down the road just doesn't stop drug deals, break-ins or otherwise keep the peace.

"By the time he gets his socks on, the crook's gone," said Martin Ziegler, a local sausagemaker who wears a shirt inscribed with "Have a Wienerful Day."

It was Ziegler who pushed to get the cameras installed after a stranger chased his daughter, then 10, in broad daylight. Among those who believe in security cameras, Ziegler would undoubtedly be described as an evangelist. So is his wife, Joyce.

It's not that this town or county is a high-crime zone. Redwood County, with a population of about 16,000 scattered over 880 square miles of farmland, recorded one murder in 2004, 16 aggravated assaults, 81 burglaries, 265 larcenies, 7 rapes and 30 car thefts. Narcotics arrests totaled 35, all but 10 of them for marijuana. While that's a pretty tame weekend in some cities, crime is one of those things that does not have a uniform definition. One town's misdemeanor is another town's outrage.

Security also has proved to be a state of mind, as reflected by public opinion polls in the 1990s that showed angst about crime, even as violent-crime rates plummeted.

Judy Trebesch, for 30 years the city clerk, takes a long pause when asked about the most recent serious crime in Sanborn.

"Oh, my," she said. "I guess it was when the kids took trucks and fertilizer spreaders and played dodge-'ems in the cornfield. That was about four years ago."

The cameras were installed in November, at a cost of $29,000--much of it donated--and only after a pretty hard sales job. Ziegler said some men worried that their wives would soon learn how much time they were spending at Tom & Jerry's or the American Legion hall across the street.

"If your wife doesn't want you sitting at the bar so much, then maybe you shouldn't do it," is what Ziegler said he told them. That remark did not go down well with some, which apparently led to the protest pants-dropping episode.

Over time, though, Ziegler, Platz and others say people have grown accustomed to the stationary cameras, partly because they are aimed at the streets and do not record anyone going into Tom & Jerry's or the legion hall.

Sheriff Rick Morris, in Redwood Falls, said he stopped hearing complaints about crime in Sanborn shortly after the cameras were installed. "It was like 'kaboom.' The complaints quit," Morris said.

But are the cameras making any difference? It's debatable in terms of measurable crime. Shortly after the cameras went up, someone broke into the lumber company and stole the safe. The opened safe was recovered in Iowa but authorities never nabbed the thieves, despite catching a look at the pickup truck on the camera.

For many, the perception of security cameras is Orwellian, dominated by some faceless Big Brother watching your every move. That is not the reality in Sanborn, where the video is streamed to a 15-inch TV set on a kitchen countertop in Trebesch's small office, right next to a Paul Newman spaghetti sauce poster. The screen is divided into nine squares, each reporting in mind-numbing accuracy what is happening on the streets. The images are recorded and kept for seven days.

Trebesch hates it. In fact, the set is usually turned off. "I can't watch it," she said

If something happens, they'll run through the digital images and then call the sheriff, who also has access to the video feed. Then, theoretically, the chase is on.

Morris said it's too soon to conclude that cameras are the answer for cash-strapped towns searching for law and order.

"It's a pair of eyes, if you need 'em," said Sanborn Mayor and retired police officer Charlie Hosack, as a group of senior citizens played pinochle outside Trebesch's office.

"But we've only had to check it a couple of times," Hosack added.

Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.