As surveillance camera issue comes before City Council, Gene Webb asks what happened?

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When Bill Foster ran for Mayor one of the Foster Forty campaign initiatives was the expanded use of video surveillance. After the mayor was elected we wanted to move forward  quickly with a video surveillance camera system implementation.

There was limited interest among the management team at the St. Petersburg Police Department. Although surveillance cameras are widely used by cities throughout the united states, there was a genuine reluctance on the part of PD management to get the program moving.

As a proof of concept  I oversaw the installation of video surveillance cameras in Williams Park, Lake Vista Park and  Fossil Park. What followed was one the more bizarre parts of my stay as manager of the Information and Communications Division of the St. Petersburg Police Department.

For months the only monitor in the Police Department displaying the cameras was in the IT Department. No one from enforcement(sworn) staff  monitored the cameras.

No one wanted responsibility for monitoring the cameras.

Finally, at Chief Harmon’s direction, we put a monitor in the sergeants office, which is rarely used, and one in the com center over the com center manager’s objections.

Neither of these monitors has a person or staff assigned to watch it. Recorded video is not routinely reviewed. Yet no one from the sworn law enforcement staff  was assigned responsibility for the video surveillance project.

There was rampant paranoia that if the video was recorded, and  no one from the PD saw an event that there would be a liability issue. The video is currently recorded and retained for a short period of time.

The central City IT department, which has responsibility for camera deployment to monitor city assets, has deployed cameras at the marina, the port,  soon at the airport, at water treatment plants and other city facilities. As of my retirement in October of 2011 none of these cameras were monitored by the Police Department.

I made arrangements to have all of the St. Petersburg I-275 camera video routed to the Police Department facility. None of this video is routinely monitored.

I personally researched and developed a surveillance camera use and deployment policy and signage program which to this day has not been implemented.

Although camera costs have become very reasonable and with the city’s advance networking deployment costs are low, cost was always cited as an issue.

There was stonewalling regarding cost and  invasion of privacy verses deployment. Issues easily resolved by well developed policies and procedures.  Yet no direction or effort was made to implement the draft policy.

When pressed for crime locations to deploy cameras, the answer was we cannot put them just in the high crime areas we must deploy them evenly. Yet in the Division I managed, we produced the maps, scatter diagrams and charts that would indicate where this type of policing would be effective. The literal translation, if cameras are placed in high crime areas on the South side of St. Pete an equal or near equal number would have to be placed in North St. Pete to appear fair and balanced.

PD management said the residents of the south side did not want the cameras in their neighborhoods, citing past efforts at selective enforcement, yet there was no formal effort made to offer the cameras to high crime areas through Neighborhood Associations or Crime Watch Coordinators. I personally volunteered to make presentations to these groups to explain the system and how it would work and was told that would not be necessary.

What was most baffling is that in convenience store, gas station, pawn shop and bank robberies surveillance video is often the tool that leads to quick resolution. In home burglaries one of the first  investigative questions: is there a home video surveillance system?  The value of video surveillance as an investigative tool is without question.

The pilot system was in place, it worked, yet there was no organized effort to implement and use the technology as requested by the Mayor.

Management felt that using officers to monitor cameras was not an efficient use officer time, yet when we visited Hillsboro County to see their installation, they indicated the cameras were quite helpful and  productive in their law enforcement efforts.

What I do  know is I was given direct orders to not deploy anymore surveillance cameras or put any more effort into the project. The effort was essentially stopped in late 2010 early 2011 and as of my retirement in October of 2011 no additional fixed public surveillance cameras had been deployed.

The only conclusion I could come away with was there were those  in the PD management chain that simply did not want to use continual video surveillance as a proactive and preveantive law enforcement tool. The reasoning or logic was never made clear, at least not to me.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.