City of Fort Worth Takes Aim with Hidden Cameras

Code compliance officers are cracking down on illegal dump sites like this one underneath an overpass. "If you do it, there's a good chance you're going to get caught," Code Compliance Director Carl Smart says.

Tucked away in bushes and trees throughout the city are tiny cameras -- most smaller than a credit card -- designed to catch criminals in the act.

But only those who are adding to a problem increasingly plaguing Fort Worth neighborhoods: Illegal dumping.

These half-dozen cameras are the city's latest effort to catch those who furtively leave piles of trash -- mattresses, toilets, tires, furniture -- in areas such as vacant fields and dead-end streets.

"We're not going to tolerate illegal dumping on lots and making neighborhoods look bad," Code Compliance Director Carl Smart said. "If you do it, there's a good chance you're going to get caught.

"And if you're caught, you're going to get punished."

Earlier this year, code officers began placing four still cameras and two video cameras -- all with night vision, all motion sensitive -- in key problem areas.

Officials won't say where they hide the cameras, which range in cost from $300 to $3,000, but they say they are moved to different locations as needed.

Through these cameras, they have captured illegal dumping, the dumpers, the vehicles used for dumping, even the vehicles' license plates.

"These cameras were the logical step for us," said Alex Southern, a spokesman for the city's code compliance department. "It's too hard to have an officer sit out there waiting.

"We thought with the hidden cameras, we could place them, leave and come back in a day or so, rewind the film and see what we've got," he said. "It's working."

Code officials won't say what quadrants of the city the cameras are in, but they admit they target areas where they've had to repeatedly clean up piles of trash.

Like cameras used in state and national parks, these run remotely, can withstand the elements and operate several days on one battery.

They are similar to cameras used in cities nationwide.

In Riverside, Calif., cameras document graffiti vandals and then loudspeakers tell taggers their picture was taken and will be used to pursue criminal charges. In Syracuse, N.Y., hidden cameras have caught people illegally dumping at the city brush collection site.

And in Pittsburgh, infrared cameras allow 24-hour monitoring of parks and a water treatment plant, which police hope will cut down on illegal dumping.

In Fort Worth, the hidden cameras start recording or taking pictures when they detect motion.

"They are working well," Smart said. "They give us suspects and the dumping activity. And it allows us to use that as evidence in court cases."

Since October, more than 7,500 tons of trash have been collected citywide from illegal dump piles, city records show.

So far this year, 4,036 cases of illegal dumping have been reported to the city, compared with 1,283 last year, according to records.

Code officers typically issue more than a dozen tickets each month for illegal dumping. Since late April, 43 tickets have been issued, records show.

City Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks said she hopes the cameras help clean up Fort Worth -- especially in her southeast District 8, which she said is littered with illegal dump piles.

"It just looks terrible," she said. "Many times, residents put out their trash and others from outside the community come and dump on existing piles. It looks like a dumping ground some weeks.

"I think the hidden cameras will be really good," she said. "It's an excellent idea to try to deal with this terrible problem."

The crackdown isn't cheap.

The city has as much as $125,000 budgeted for the illegal dump team this year.

But it's not just about putting cameras in hidden locations.

Code officers go up in a police helicopter once a week for aerial surveillance, identifying new dump sites that can only be seen from above.

And when possible, police notify code officers of new piles found growing in the city.

"Everyone is cooperatively working together to make Fort Worth, Texas, not only the safest, but perhaps the cleanest, major city in the country," said Lt. Dean Sullivan, a Fort Worth police spokesman.

Code officers also work with the city's legal staff, the city marshal's office, the city's environmental management department, the Tarrant County district attorney's office, Constable Sergio DeLeon and other law enforcers.

Earlier this year, Tarrant County and Fort Worth officials launched a bilingual campaign against illegal dumping, trying to educate residents on the laws and penalties and informing them about health hazards created by the trash.

About 60,000 residents received mailers in English and Spanish, and radio spots and newspaper ads were used as well.

A key message they want to get out is that violators can face stiff penalties.

Toss out an aluminum can and face a Class C misdemeanor and a maximum fine of $500. Dump a refrigerator and that's a Class A misdemeanor, with up to a year in jail and a fine of as much as $4,000, according to the state's litter abatement act.

"We are charged with making Fort Worth a cleaner and more attractive place," Smart said. "This is a priority for us."