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Fort Pierce wants to install crime surveillance cameras throughout city

TC Palm | April 14 2006

FORT PIERCE — Electronic eyes peering down on public rights-of-way in some of the most violent areas in the city present a much-needed additional tool to help law enforcement reduce crime, city officials say.

During this month's annual City Commission workshop, Police Chief Eugene Savage will propose a crime surveillance pilot program costing between $200,000 and $400,000. No date has been set for the workshop.

If approved, Savage said he would recommend installing several cameras in a small section of the city to evaluate whether they are effective in fighting crime.
The exact location of the cameras would be kept secret, Savage said.

"If it's overt and people know where they are, the criminals won't do anything in that area. They'll just move a couple of blocks away," he said.

Police said they are not decided whether the cameras would be monitored live or whether the images would be taped and retained.

In Tampa, where surveillance cameras have been in place for about 10 years, signs are posted to warn people they're being watched.

"They do that to get people to behave," Savage said. "We want the same thing, but we have areas we need to clean up. I would prefer we start this process covertly and then let them know they're being surveilled."

Savage said police are looking at targeting the area primarily from Orange Avenue north and from U.S. 1 north.

"We're looking to install cameras in areas with high drive-by shootings, immigrant robberies and drug-related areas that perpetuate crime," he said.

Law enforcement tried to thwart drug activity about three years ago in the northwest area by installing speakers on the street, which played classical music. But that was short-lived.

"It served its purpose to a degree," Savage said. "Some of the drug dealers moved, but people started getting used to the classical music. We were kind of entertaining them. I got rid of it because its usefulness ran out."

If the cameras become reality, Fort Pierce will be one of only a few cities in the state, including Tampa and West Palm Beach, using police surveillance to monitor public activity.

Nationwide, cities such as New York City, Chicago and Baltimore also use them. The use of video cameras has sparked national debate among civil libertarians who say the cameras are an infringement on privacy rights. Law enforcement agencies, however, contend the use of video cameras are an innovative tool to smart policing.

Commissioner Eddie Becht said he'd have to weigh the citizens' expectations of privacy concerning where the cameras are going to be installed before he could make a decision on whether cameras are a good idea.

"If I'm standing in front of the Sunrise Theatre, I don't think I'd have an expectation of privacy," Becht said. "If the cameras are going to peer down into somebody's back yard, I'd have a problem with that. I really don't like law enforcement knowing my business, but I'll tolerate that if there's a real deterrent."

Mayor Bob Benton said he would have trouble supporting the surveillance system using tax dollars and would instead prefer to put more police officers on the streets.

"That is very expensive," he said. "Somebody needs to show me that it works."

Savage said a typical police officer salary with benefits, equipment and training costs taxpayers between $65,000 and $70,000. Currently, the city employs 110 police officers.

"We can get the additional personnel, but this allows us to police smarter," Savage said of the surveillance cameras.

Commissioner R. "Duke" Nelson, who has pushed for the cameras for the past several years after seeing them implemented in Tampa, said public surveillance already is being used at area Wal-Marts and the cost benefits will save citizens in the long run.

"We're trying to curtail behavior of individuals because when people think you're watching them, they tend not to do things wrongfully or illegally," Nelson said. "It's a deterrent."What: A pilot program using surveillance cameras in city neighborhoods.

Cost: $200,000 to $400,000 for initial startup, excluding maintenance and monitoring costs.

Area targeted: High-crime areas from Orange Avenue north and from U.S. 1 north.

Monitoring: Wireless transmission from cameras to specially equipped police vehicles.

OTHER CITIES

Tampa and West Palm Beach have had experience with surveillance cameras.

Tampa

The Tampa Police Department uses about 12 surveillance cameras in its crime-ridden entertainment district Ybor City. The city has been using them for about 10 years but drew national cries of "Big Brother" about five years ago when it turned to face recognition technology, said Cpl. Mike Morrow, in charge of overseeing the system.

For the most part, people ignore the cameras and forget they are there, Morrow said.

"They are part of the environment," he said.

However, Morrow couldn't point to any data showing the cameras reduce crime.

"Cameras give our police department flexibility to manipulate our manpower to be effective in other areas," Morrow said. "You can't specifically say the cameras have reduced crime."

Morrow said footage from the cameras has resulted in arrests for robbery, burglary, stabbings and assault.

West Palm Beach

West Palm Beach Assistant Police Chief Guillermo Perez said the city last year had planned a crime surveillance pilot program employing four cameras in the city's downtown entertainment district. However, it took eight months to get the cameras installed and the company hired to do the installation couldn't get the cameras to work.

Perez said the city now plans to install 25 video cameras within the next six months in the city's downtown and troubled neighborhoods. He said the program initially was met with resistance but that declined with concerns about terrorism. In last year's London subway bombings, the perpetrators were caught on surveillance tapes.

"It's not like we're out there to violate anyone's civil rights," Perez said. "We're just trying to safeguard the public." Perez said monitoring of the cameras would be done in patrol cars by officers who have cameras located on their respective beats. They will be able to view the camera transmissions on laptops.

"We would eventually set up a command center," he said. "Officers will be fully trained as far as what they can and cannot do regarding civil liberties."

CIVIL LIBERTIES ISSUES

What the Treasure Coast chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says about public surveillance cameras:

"As far as the ACLU is concerned, there is no objection to cameras in specific high profile real potential terrorist targets," said T. A. Wyner, president of the Treasure Coast Chapter of the ACLU. "It's this idea of blanket surveillance of public spaces and streets. I think it's a bad idea. What really needs to be done before we go any further is, will the cameras record to tape and the images be retained? What is the criteria for other governmental agencies and the public to access the tapes? What rules are in place to enforce protection of civil liberties and punish those who violate them? Before we allow this to happen, we have to consider the idea that we'll be in a society where everyone is under constant surveillance. Isn't that where this is headed?"

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