From his North Hollywood security company, David Neuman can peek inside Taco Bells in Honolulu, apartment hallways in Las Vegas and convenience store aisles in Puerto Rico.
And with a few strokes of his computer keyboard, he can set in motion a system that will order thieves to drop merchandise or alert police that a robbery is in progress.
Using software that he developed, Neuman and his employees at TeleControl Systems Inc. can call up live video at stores thousands of miles away to watch customers and employees.
Unlike conventional security alarm systems, his is interactive. If a convenience store employee senses danger, he or she can push a button and connect with the security team in North Hollywood.
In seconds, Neuman's employees will "voice down" a warning to potential perpetrators through a speaker in the ceiling. Their live voices, transmitted by telephone, often stop crime dead in its tracks.
TeleControl Systems has become the eyes, ears and voice of about 1,000 small businesses, apartment complexes and Fortune 500 corporations in 20 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. In Los Angeles, the Sitelink system has been installed at two South-Central housing developments.
"The idea behind Sitelink is to be proactive in preventing the crime from happening," said Neuman, chief executive of the company. "More than 90% of the time our intervention is successful."
Neuman got the idea while working at his father's alarm business.
"I always thought that traditional security systems were missing something," he said.
Since TeleControl Systems was incorporated in 1991, the company has grown 60% annually and in 1997 recorded $10 million in revenue, according to Neuman.
The company's 24-hour command center looks like the control room for the starship Enterprise. Inside a small, circular room, three members of the security team sit and face several computers at a time. A dim, reddish light throbs through the room and off their faces.
Each day, the team checks into all of the sites on a rotating basis. They peek into a site at least once a day, or more often at clients' requests. Clients can also monitor their own sites from their personal computers. The video camera simultaneously transmits real-time audio, video and data information to the clients and to TeleControl's headquarters in North Hollywood.
Ed Isaacson said the system has deterred several potential assaults and robberies of clerks at his Arco AM/PM mini-mart in Stockton.
"We had a customer come in and give a $10 bill for gas, and when he came back into the store, he said he had given the clerk a $20," said Isaacson, who has subscribed to Sitelink for two years.
"At that time, he was getting hostile," Isaacson said, and the clerk pushed a rectangular "panic button," about 1 inch long, hidden in his pocket, alerting TeleControl's security team. A voice immediately boomed through the store.
"They let the person know that the police are on the way," Isaacson said. Within minutes, authorities arrived.
"The employees are very happy with the system," he added.
During a recent robbery, a clerk at his store also pushed a panic button hidden in his pocket. When a weapon is involved, TeleControl's security team does not voice down a warning but instead alerts police. Authorities used video of the incident to identify the man and arrested him, Isaacson said.
Isaacson has three computer monitors of his own that each flash an image of the store for five seconds. At any given time, the team at TeleControl can randomly or by request watch those same images.
The company hopes to expand the business into nursing homes, schools and private residences--anywhere there's a need for supervision, said Al Sheldon, president of TeleControl Systems.
"There's no one in the country that's got what they've got. That's why I use them," said Phil Wayne, a crime control consultant based in Boulder, Colo.
Wayne, who specializes in reducing crime on rental properties and who is hired by police agencies, installed Sitelink in a Las Vegas housing development troubled by crack dealers, gang violence and prostitution.
"The results were astonishing," he said. "In three days, [the criminal element] was gone. The police were surprised because there was an 89% drop in calls."
Another selling point: The system is far cheaper than the three security guards who used to patrol the 160-unit housing development--$47,000 contrasted with $151,000.
At Wayne's recommendation, a Denver nonprofit group is considering installing the system at a park plagued by drug-dealing.
While such uses for video surveillance are new, the idea is not, said Richard Chace, director of communications for the Virginia-based National Security Industry Assn. Prisons and military institutions have been using a similar system for years.
In other settings, however, Sitelink could prove more controversial.