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Friday, July 23, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cameras Aim To Check Hilltop Drug Traffic

In some editions of yesterday's paper, the following story ran incomplete. We reprint it here in its entirety.

TACOMA - Smile! You're on Cocaine Camera.

Early next month, television cameras will be mounted on telephone poles in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood in an effort to crack down on deeply entrenched drug trade.

This video surveillance by police is part of a cooperative program with citizens that runs the gamut from trimming bushes to eliminate drug dealers' favorite hiding places to fencing yards used as a thoroughfare for prostitution. Although surveillance is not new, the program itself is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.

The five-block residential area targeted is a mix of shiny hypodermic needles, well-groomed yards and colorful street people who disparage an electronic eye that roams with them.

"It violates our rights," said a man who goes by the name OldMan. "We got nowhere to go but the streets; it's a raw deal."

Jerry Sheehan, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, said the cameras do not violate civil liberties, but he finds such "ominous use of technology troubling," reminiscent of a "big brother, sci-fi movie."

Supporters say they are taking pains to ensure the three tamper-resistant cameras, which have a 360-degree radius, are aimed only on the outdoors and do not invade privacy.

If the program works, it may serve as a national model,

according to Mike Chisholm, program manager with the state Department of Community Development. A representative from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance program will visit Hilltop next month to assess the progress.

"It would be nice for Hilltop to get national recognition for something that doesn't involve a shootout," said Darlena Gray, community organizer with the Hilltop Action Coalition.

By "shootout," Gray is referring to the 1989 neighborhood barbecue that turned into a battle between drug dealers and off-duty Army rangers, with back yards used as makeshift firing lines. That event came to symbolize a community at war with itself - citizens against criminals, with virtually everybody hating the police.

How times have changed.

The culturally diverse neighborhood - nearly half the population is made up of people of color - is safer, thanks in large part to what began as grudging cooperation between police and citizens. But the core area of Hilltop - South L and M streets at South 23rd and 25th streets and Martin Luther King Jr. Way - has remained a stubborn stain of drug trade resistant to cleanup efforts.

The coalition teamed up with the Tacoma Police Department to obtain a $125,000 federal justice grant through the state Department of Community Development. The coalition is arranging for brighter street lighting, organizing block cleanups and putting on a seminar for landlords to help them evict drug dealers more efficiently.

About $75,000 is going toward police overtime to enhance patrols in Hilltop, while $30,000 is being spent on the cameras and equipment.

Video cameras have traditionally been used by police for specific operations, rather than surveillance. But grant administrator Lt. Phil Gainey said the monitoring would be comparable to other video projects and used as evidence in court. The cameras will be visible, but Gainey said he still expects to catch people buying drugs.

Should drug trade move elsewhere, Gray said resources have been allocated to deal with those areas.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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