Alaska News

Juneau trash cams catch litterbugs red-handed

It was 8:35 on a Saturday morning earlier this year when the little SUV stopped along Montana Creek Road in Juneau. A college-aged woman, hair in a ponytail, stepped carefully through the snow and tossed a bag of trash in the woods.

At 8:36 a.m. she drove away.

We know this because a hidden camera caught it all on tape. Juneau police used the footage to find the woman, Janessa Sanbei, and fine her for littering -- one of five tickets issued this spring after the installation of surveillance cameras at popular illegal dumping sites across the capital city. It's a new solution to the old problem of litterbugs along remote country roads, and Juneau officials say it's working.

"As far as I know we were able to identify everybody who dumped anything in that area," said George Schaaf, parks and landscape superintendent for the city and borough.

The road seen on the cameras winds through an area north of Juneau known for world-class fly fishing and abandoned recliners. In the past, catching people who threw broken televisions or deer carcasses in the surrounding rainforest required a stroke of luck: A tip from a witness or a phone bill plucked from a trash bag.

"We get tired of digging through piles hoping to find a scrap of paper with somebody's name on it," said Bob Dilley, lead community services officer for the Juneau Police Department.

Increasingly powerful and inexpensive cameras are giving law enforcement a new option. The Delaware Natural Resources Department has used hidden cameras to catch litterers since 2009, posting pictures of some scofflaws on a state website. Other towns and counties around the country began experimenting with litter cams earlier this year, at about the same time as Juneau.


In Henry County, Va., population 54,000, one of the most common complaints heard by local officials is the prevalence of ugly roadside trash, said county attorney George Lyle. That's a problem, given that the community suffers double-digit unemployment and is hoping to lure new employers.

"It hurts your ability to attract tourism, it hurts your ability to attract new businesses," he said.

The county's board of supervisors voted this year to approve $5,000 for the purchase of game cameras to catch people illegally dumping trash. Officers made six arrests in four weeks, according to the local sheriff's office.

When the cameras fail to spot a license plate number, the county is so small someone can often identify the offender's car by glancing at the footage, said Capt. Rik Vaughn. "Eventually one of the officers says, 'Oh yeah, that's John Doe.' "


In April, nine litterbugs captured on surveillance cameras were arrested in the Philadelphia suburb of Camden, N.J. The footage showed two different drivers stopping on a public street, abandoning a pair of skinny dogs and speeding away, according to ABC affiliate WPVI-TV.

In Juneau, five people shown littering in city surveillance footage can be seen tossing trash that likely would have cost no more than $35 to dump at the local landfill.

"I think people are just trying to save money or being lazy," said Dilley, the Juneau police officer.

Illegally dumping more than a square foot of litter is a minor offense in the Southeast Alaska city and borough, punishable by a $200 fine. The people cited so far look like any cross section of Alaskans. Guys in ball caps and hoodies driving big pickups. A man in a Land Rover. An SUV full of young women.

"We all struggle with, 'Who are these people who are doing this?' and then you look at it, and they're driving nice cars," said parks superintendent Schaaf.

The Daily News, through a public records request, obtained footage involving all the closed littering cases originating between April 9 and May 15. All five people shown in the footage had paid their fines as of June 12, according to the Juneau Police Department.

The city declined to provide litter-cam footage related to three additional citations, saying those cases remain open.

The videos are a study in what people do when they think no one is watching. April 9 footage from the camera at the Montana Creek site shows a man in a white Ford F-350 depositing a truck full of debris next to the road. He sweeps the bumper of his pickup clean before driving off.

The trash was still on the ground the next afternoon when a different man arrived in a different pickup and tossed what looks like a muffler into the snow, the footage shows. The area seen on the camera is thick with trash, including a broken TV, a recliner and what looks like a kitchen sink.

"This spring alone, in that one area, we spent about $8,000 in staff time and equipment and dumping fees, just picking up the stuff that had been dumped over the winter," Schaaf said.

People confronted with accusations of illegal dumping generally deny doing anything wrong, said Dilley, the community services officer. Then police tell them about the video footage.

"Oh, OK," they say. "How much is the ticket?"


Juneau resident John M. Vavalis was shocked when police arrived at his job to talk about an incident caught on one of the security cameras May 4, said his sister, Tabby Vavalis. In the images, two men can be seen pulling tires from the bed of a distinctive green truck.

Vavalis could not be reached for comment. He had thought it was OK to leave the tires for pickup as part of a city clean-up day, his sister said.


The head of a statewide recycling organization says she'd like explore the use of cameras in other parts of Alaska, if necessary.

"It's pretty cool and it makes sense, particularly when you have specific areas of public property that are getting dumped on," said Mary Fisher, executive director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling. Past problem areas include the Butte and other parts of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Other than Juneau, Fisher knows of no Alaska cities using trash cams. She said she hasn't heard any recent complaints about illegal dumping in the Anchorage area. Municipal Park Superintendent Holly Spoth-Torres said the city currently has no plans to install anti-littering cameras.

Still, litter has been a problem at times. City workers barricaded a right-of-way near the Abbott Loop Spenard Builders Supply last year after it became a de facto dumping ground, said Rich Fern, lead land-use enforcement officer. "It's like a magnet. People see it, they think that's the place to dump. And it happens all the time."

Littering falls under Anchorage public-nuisance laws with fines ranging from $50 to $300 for a first offense and $200 to $600 for a second offense, Fern said. Some land owners appear to be using cameras to catch scofflaws, even if the city isn't, he said. "I know a lot of private parties are doing it."


Meanwhile, the trend is growing. Lorain County, Ohio, sheriffs recently bought solar-powered litter cameras. In Canada, local governments in Stephenville, Newfoundland and the Municipal District of Foothills in southern Alberta are considering trash cams this year too, according to local news reports.

In Juneau, the program began when the parks director, Schaaf, was inspired by the time-lapse camera he bought to monitor parking patterns at a local lake. The city spent about $1,400 on several cameras -- Schaaf won't say how many -- placed them in problem litter areas and waited.

On the day a story about the program appeared in the Juneau Empire newspaper, someone shot one of the cameras, police said. Schaaf says others are still in use around town.

"We're not going to advertise where they are," he said. "We've lost one camera and we're not going to make it any easier for people to damage anymore."

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Anchorage Daily News

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email