Saturday, March 8, 2008
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It's midnight on the streets of Atlanta, and bar owner Rufus Terrill patrols his neighborhood with a rolling crime fighter of his own creation. Meet "Bum-bot," as Terrill describes it; others in his neighborhood call it simply, "Robocop."
This former BBQ smoker is armed with a water gun to chase off bums and drug dealers in downtown Atlanta.
It's a barbecue smoker mounted on a three-wheeled scooter, and armed with an infrared camera, spotlight, loudspeaker and aluminum water cannon that shoots a stream of icy water about 20 feet.
Operated by remote control, the robot spotlights trespassers on property down the street from his bar, O'Terrill's. Using a walkie-talkie, Terrill belts out through the robot's loudspeaker, "That's private property. You guys need to get out of here."
Terrill is chasing out unsavory-looking characters from a street corner that resembles a drug dealer's dream at night. More than 20 suspicious people were seen huddling in the dark in the front driveway and side parking lot on this night. Some were seen openly making drug deals. Video Watch "Bum-bot" in action »
But during the day, it's where young children frolic on a nearby playground at a the Beacon of Light Daycare Center in downtown Atlanta. It has become a nightmare for day care operator Lydia Meredith.
"This whole square is enveloped with homeless people and drug dealers, defecating, urinating, prostituting -- the whole nine yards. And the overflow of that behavior, we get to cleanup every morning," she says.
Meredith says people often toss used syringes and condoms onto the playground.
Terrill, an engineer by trade, is also a board member at the day care center. Tired of cleaning up after the shady characters, he decided to take action. That's when he built his downtown Darth Vader of sorts.
"He's a neighborhood vigilante," says Meredith, "and when he came up with this -- you know, I call it Robocop -- I said, 'Praise God.' "
The daycare center is a block from a homeless shelter. Meredith has a security guard at the center who leaves in the early evening. "They know when the guard leaves," she says. "They know when the cleaning crew leaves and then here comes the drug dealers to prey on the homeless people."
Anita Beatty, the director of the shelter, is suspicious of the barbecue-smoker robot. "I just think the whole 'Robocop' spraying people is a little freaky. We really need some police protection in this neighborhood. I think it's confusing the issue. I think the issue is homeless people. They are being confused with the folks who prey on them and sell them drugs," she says.
Atlanta police patrol the area, but say it's difficult to stay on top of the large number of people who roam the streets in the area late at night.
Police Major Lane Hagin says the robot is definitely a different crime-fighting idea. "There's no problem with the robot going up and down the street or being visible or any of the other things it does -- with the exception of spraying water on people."
Hagin adds, "Then, it becomes an assault no matter where it happens."
So far no one has filed charges against Terrill or the robot. But one homeless man who declined to give his name followed Terrill and his robot down the street and laughingly told him, "I know about you. I can sue you for assault."
Terrill says he's not hurting anyone and often sprays the water to the side of loiterers as a ploy to get them to move on. He's also not about to back down.
"If you're throwing condoms out on the side of the playground, if you're throwing needles, you're throwing crack pipes out there, I'm not going to let those kids be out there like that. I'm going to stop you."
Terrill bought his bar four years ago knowing nothing about the restaurant business. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 2006. He's had ongoing problems with people breaking into his bar and stealing things, but it was the day care center problems that spurred him on to create the robot.
Some of Terrill's bar patrons say they've seen a difference in the neighborhood. Susanne Coe lives nearby.
"I've seen a marked change simply with this robot that doesn't have any power of arrest. It does scare people and to be honest with you I'm grateful for it," she says.
On this night, as Terrill and his robot make their way to the street corner, he shines the robot's spotlight on the parking lot of the daycare center. One by one, the shadowy figures stand up, walk away and saunter down the street.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, when I go up there and once I turn the spotlight on and I talk to them through the speaker, they leave," he says. E-mail t
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