FEDERAL WAY, Wash. -- During the busy post-holiday shopping frenzy, the moving van in the back parking lot of The Commons mall may have otherwise gone unnoticed.
But someone did notice it.
"They called and said it ... looked suspicious," said Federal Way Police Officer Shon Smith, "That they were dealing packages out the back of it."
The caller, however, wasn't a shopper or a mall employee. Rather, it was a volunteer watching through one of about a dozen city surveillance cameras around the shopping center.
And while this confrontation ended peacefully -- Smith said it was someone selling rugs without a license on mall property -- it's a good example of the heads-up officers get from the Safe City camera program.
"It's our own people calling us and giving us live information," Smith said. "We're actually live, so they're saying, 'Yeah right now, this is what they're doing,' or 'That's what they're doing,' or 'You know what, they just split up and he's going this way, he's going that way.' So it makes it a lot easier to contact in progress crimes."
A few years into the program, Federal Way now has about 36 of these live cameras mounted at The Commons, at major intersections along Pacific Highway, at the Federal Way Transit Center and at other points around the downtown corridor.
Volunteers monitor the cameras from a room in the Federal Way Police Department. Officers out in the field and in substations also have access to the feeds, said a police spokesperson.
Doug Gantt, a volunteer, said they serve two functions: virtual patrolling for suspicious activity (like the example above), and following in-progress crimes that are broadcast over the police radio.
Gantt showed us a "multi-view" window with a preset button that would automatically train 12 downtown cameras on nearby banks.
"It would be like having a big eye on the city, and being able to find something going on," Gantt said, "and being able to find something going on that needed to be reported and getting the police officers on it."
Of course, not everyone likes the idea of a big eye watching people as the shop, walk and drive in downtown Federal Way. Civil rights groups say it's a slippery slope towards invasion of privacy, as these cameras can zoom into windows with high detail from hundreds of feet away. And the ACLU has argued that in some other places, cameras made little or no dent in crime.
But Federal Way Police say from the first half of last year to this year, their records show assaults downtown are down 21 percent, robberies are down 38 percent and car prowls have dropped by 45 percent.
First started with a grant from the Target corporation, Safe City is now funded mostly through donations and fees from 170 local partners, which include the Chamber of Commerce, individual businesses and local government.
Volunteers also must go through the same background checks commissioned officers do, then take sensitivity training, before they're allowed behind the mouse. That includes teaching volunteers not to point cameras into hotel windows, Gantt said.
"Everything we do needs to be legal," Gantt said, "and on top of that, it needs to not even give the impression of compromising people's civil rights."