SEBRING - Deputies weren't trying to camouflage it. A pickup truck pulling the Eye in the Sky trailer was marked with the usual sheriff's office stickers last week at Lakeshore Mall.
"You might see the equipment at various locations around the county, especially during the rush of the holiday season," said Sheriff Susan Benton. "We are using it as a crime-prevention measure by watching major shopping area parking lots for thefts, and to have an eye in the sky to protect our citizens."
Highlands County Sheriff's Office is the host county for a portable surveillance tower. Through a regional Homeland Security grant to nine southwest Florida counties, the local sheriff's office can use the lofty gadget when it's not needed by another county.
The cab has room enough for two observers, plus a camera control panel.
"That thing will really zoom in," Chief Deputy Mark Schraeder said.
It looks like a white metal box sitting on a white trailer, but when the scissor hinges are fully extended, it's 12 feet taller than a giraffe.
"About three stories," said Schraeder. "We can see over a lot greater area. We get above the obstacles in the parking lots."
Although it can operate remotely, a deputy is usually inside, he said. Magnetic Highlands County Sheriff's office stickers will be purchased to clearly mark it.
The crime-fighting tower arrived a week before the 2013 Twelve Hours at Sebring, and it was helpful in arresting bad guys.
"Yes, they could see people that looked like they were up to no good," Schraeder said. "They could see the whole raceway. It was amazing how much you could see."
If the bird-level deputy spotted something, another deputy was alerted on foot, in a golf cart, or in a car, Schraeder said.
In Panama City, police used an Eye in the Sky like a lifeguard tower to make beaches safer.
"It serves as a command and control for them because they can point the officers as to where to go, see over the crowd completely, and see a situation happen," Howard Schemer, business manager for FLIR, the parent company of Sky Watch, told WMBB-TV.
This year, as the Christmas rush started at Lakeshore Mall, "We got with the mall manager," Schraeder said. "They were happy it was going to be there. It's a visual deterrent. We also had it at Shelby Crossing."
The Eye in the Sky won't be in shopping areas every day though, Schraeder said. "It becomes a manpower issue."
The cutting-edge technology also may be deployed in neighborhoods where crime has become a problem, though. "The bad guys don't know we are watching them."
"We just started deploying it, but you're going to see it, traveling around the state," Schraeder said.
NYPD has a watch tower in Harlem. According to news reports, portable Eye in the Sky guard towers have been deployed in Montreal, Jersey City and Panama City.
Although a national debate has brewed over whether public cameras are invasive, Schraeder said they are admissible in court, just like the audio and video in police cars, and that they've solved lots of crimes. The Boston Marathon bombing was the latest prominent example.
Since so many malls, department stores and convenience stores have cameras, it's less and less possible not to be photographed, he pointed out.
"It's just another asset, another resource to use."