Raising vibrations to help humanity
Tania Ouaknine is convinced the police are watching her.
She's not paranoid — it says as much on the red sign painted along the side on the hulking armored truck that's been parked in front of her eight-room Parisian Motel for several days.
"Warning: You are under video surveillance," reads the bold message on the side of the truck.
From the front bumper of the menacing vehicle, another sign taunts: "Whatcha gonna do when we come for you?"
The truck is a new weapon for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department in the fight against drugs and neighborhood nuisances, and it looks like a Winnebago on steroids. They call it "The Peacemaker," and it may be a first in South Florida.
Mixing high tech with simplicity, the in-your-face strategy is straightforward: load an out-of-service armored truck with some of the latest surveillance equipment available and decorate it with police emblems. Then, simply leave it parked in front of trouble spots.
"Make no mistakes about it," said Detective Travis Mandell. "We want people to know that we are watching the bad guys."
In August, police got the first of their two Peacemakers after paying the Brinks company $10 for a discontinued armored bank truck. They retrofitted the vehicle with cameras that can stream live video back to headquarters. With its cameras hoisted on each bullet-proof window, the truck can gather panoramic footage for up to 700 hours.
Last month the department added a second truck to its arsenal, converting a former SWAT vehicle into the second Peacemaker. Police park the unmanned trucks in front of the homes of suspected drug dealers and at crime-plagued street corners.
On a recent afternoon, a Peacemaker had at least one of its eight cameras trained on Ouaknine's one-story establishment.
"They say I am running a whorehouse," said the 60-year-old innkeeper. "I run a motel. The only thing that I don't have is the five stars."
Police wouldn't say why they parked the Peacemaker last week in an abandoned lot directly across Ouaknine's Parisian Motel in the 500 block of Northwest 23rd Avenue.
Police and city records show Ouaknine and her motel had been the subject of an undercover operation targeting prostitution starting in September. Ouaknine was arrested on Oct. 28 on three counts of renting rooms to prostitutes for $20 an hour. Her case is pending.
The city's nuisance abatement board sent her a warning letter and summoned her to appear for a hearing in February based on the investigation. It's the second time since 2008 that the board has targeted the motel, city records show.
She says she's doing nothing illegal.
"They've tried everything to shut me down and have failed," she said. "Now they bring this truck to intimidate me and my customers."
Some neighbors surrounding the Parisian Motel say the truck is another form of constant police harassment.
On a recent afternoon, Leo Cooper watched as two undercover street-crime officers jumped out of an unmarked Ford Crown Victoria just yards from the Peacemaker. They began questioning a group of men gathered at the corner. Within minutes, one of the men ran away. A second man was charged with loitering.
"This is what happens here every day. We can't sit outside without being harassed," said Cooper, 27. "Now we have that truck. Most of us are not doing anything wrong. We can't be outside?"