The Milford Police Department's four security cameras given them an eye on much of downtown Milford - an approach only one other Delaware police department has taken.

When you’re walking through downtown, look up once in a while. There might be a camera looking back at you.

It’d be one of the four security cameras in downtown Milford that give the Milford Police Department a bird’s-eye-view on the busiest section of town.

“They’ve helped us prevent crime, coordinate responses to a crime in progress, and go back and see records of crimes committed earlier,” said Lt. Edward Huey, who oversees the technical side of the camera system. “It’s a very useful tool.”

The cameras cover the northern section of Walnut Street, Bicentennial Park, Front Street and the area around the state services buildings on Church Street, and record footage in full color, with a digital zoom accurate enough to pick out license plate numbers of cars a block or two away.

According to police records, they were used to spot at least 23 crimes in progress in 2007, and helped officers deal with many more crimes reported through other means.

The feed from all four goes to the dispatcher’s office in the police station. Keeping an eye on the cameras is part of the dispatcher’s job, in addition to monitoring radio calls, answering the phone and sending officers where they’re needed.

“There’s a whole lot to monitor. It can be a pretty hectic job,” Huey said.

“Most of the time, if we have a spare minute we’ll keep an eye on them…from time to time, you’ll see some activity and take a closer look,” dispatcher Lee Vincent said.

They’re not just useful for watching events in progress; when a report comes in about a crime committed earlier, officers can look over the tapes to see if the cameras caught anything.

“Anything that happens on the Riverwalk, or by Bicentennial Park, we’d certainly wind back the tape to look at those,” Huey said.

In pursuit situations, the dispatcher can keep watch on the cameras and let officers know exactly where to look for the person they’re chasing.

“Alone, you’d have to be aware of a 360-degree field, constantly looking for what’s around you. With the cameras, it’s almost an aerial view. They can give you a heads-up on which way a person’s headed or where they’re hiding. It keeps the officer a lot safer,” Huey said. “There are fewer surprises.”

He said the cameras have been particularly helpful in tracking minor downtown crime, from car accidents to shoplifting.

“The cameras have helped us track fleeing people, and given the dispatchers the ability to tell the officers which way they’re headed,” Huey said. “If someone shoplifts and it’s called in, then as soon as they walk out of the store, you’re just tracking them the whole time.”

It’s been especially helpful with one store in particular.

“One of the cameras, as it zooms around, picks up the back of the Salvation Army, and a number of thefts have been prevented by officers noticing and responding there,” Huey said.

The system has also been valuable when there are simply too many people downtown for officers on the ground to easily keep track of.

“It comes in real handy at the Halloween parade. It gives us a much better handle on the activity downtown,” Vincent said.

The feed from each camera is recorded onto a hard drive in the police station, where it’s saved for about a month. Important recordings, like ones that led to arrests or may show the commission of a reported crime, are burned to a CD and stored in the station.

As far as Huey knows, only Milford and Wilmington have systems like this in the state of Delaware.

“Wilmington was where Lt. Plack got the idea. He went to a school there, and they talked about hat system…he came back, and talked to (Parks & Recreation director) Gary Emory about it,” Huey said.

According to City Manager Richard Carmean, Plack’s idea happened to mesh with a project the city was already working on – installing a “loop” of fiber-optic networking cable around downtown, to make the area more attractive to modern businesses.

“We realized pretty quickly that with fiber-optics, it’d be pretty easy to do this,” he said.

The cost came to about $30,000 to install all four, and about $4,300 per year to maintain them.

None of the other police departments surveyed by the Beacon have a camera network.

“Way back when, they did have one camera downtown, and it just got obsolete. That’s been about 20 years ago,” said Lt. Norman Wood, of the Smyrna Police Department.

“We have looked at that technology – it’s something you always try to keep abreast of – but we don’t have anything like that,” said Lt. Jim Hosfelt, of the Dover Police Department.