CLEARWATER — From its perch, law enforcement agents have been able to spot scalpers during the playoffs at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg and lost children at the Halloween Spooktacular at Largo Central Park.
But on Black Friday, the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and Clearwater Police Department were using the hydraulic lift known as SkyWatch Tower as a lookout for thieves breaking into cars in the packed parking lot at Westfield Countryside Mall.
It was the first time the SkyWatch Tower has been used as part of a campaign to protect holiday shoppers and their belongings.
The lift can hold up to two people and rises two stories, or 25 feet, into the air. The perch gives its occupants a low-flying bird's 360-degree view of what is happening all around them.
And if a deputy or police officer misses something with their eyes, they have a backup - a camera on the roof captures and records images, which anofficer can view on a video screen in the comfort of an air-conditioned booth.
Purchased with a $120,000 Department of Homeland Security grant in 2012, the SkyWatch Tower has been in particularly high demand since the Boston Marathon bombings in April, said Ernie Armistead, a corporal with the sheriff's office's special services unit.
For instance, the tower was used during the St. Anthony's Triathlon in the wake of the Boston bombings, and it was used at a triathlon in Polk County as well, Armistead said.
But on Black Friday, the mobile contraption wasn't used so much to detect terrorists as it was help shoppers.
As Armistead and a Clearwater police officer manned the booth 25 feet off the ground, other Clearwater police officers handed out pamphlets on the ground, reminding shoppers of holiday basics such as locking their merchandise in the trunks of their cars.