New Port Richey considers surveillance cameras

NEW PORT RICHEY — The newest plan for public safety, released to the City Council last week, would be a technological feat.

Twenty cameras would watch from the pavilion at Sims Park, near the playground on Grand Boulevard, from two light poles in Frances Park and across all corners of the recreation center.

Officers at headquarters or on patrol would be able to view, move and zoom the cameras from miles away, tapping into a police "force multiplier" that could allow officers to cover more ground.

The cameras would transmit wirelessly, in high-definition, at 30 frames a second, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In other words, they're an officer's dream.

What about everyone else?

"I'm just a little creeped out," council member Judy DeBella Thomas said. "It's just an uncomfortable, creepy feeling, that whole '1984' Big Brother thing. … We live in a free society. There is that assumption of privacy."

The plan for cameras, still in its earliest phase, has stoked a debate of public safety vs. personal privacy. The cameras could, in theory, fight crime, curb vandalism, even help find missing children — but would it be worth the loss of civil liberty, some ask, and the right to not be watched?

"Cameras are doing this today. What are they going to be doing two years from now, three years from now?" Mayor Scott McPherson said. "These parks are areas we want to protect. But eventually do we just make the entire city of New Port Richey under government surveillance?"

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The cameras, police Chief Martin Rickus said, would be more deterrent than detective. No one would staff the cameras at all hours, but their feeds would be recorded, allowing officers a later review in case of a criminal call.

"It's like a lock. What does a lock do?" Rickus said. "It keeps an honest man honest."

Though Rickus said the cameras could come cheaper through a state contract, the plan as estimated by Iron Sky, a security firm in Katy, Texas, would cost about $108,000 to get off the ground.

That might be worth it, said council member Rob Marlowe, considering the tens of thousands of dollars put into cleaning and rebuilding vandalized public property.

"Just the knowledge to people that, hey, there are cameras out there, might have them think twice," Marlowe said. "There really isn't a whole lot of expectation of privacy in public places. … If somebody does something wrong and they're caught on camera, I don't have a lot of sympathy."

Council members agreed that any check on crime was worth consideration, opting to pass the plan onto City Manager Tom O'Neill for a "proposal for implementation," which would ultimately return to the council. They even discussed whether the cameras could send footage to publicly viewable websites, so computer users could view events at the park from home.

But members weren't without concerns. What if the cameras could see into private homes? Would they need to post signs to alert visitors that they were being watched? What if lazy parents used the cameras as babysitters? Was this all necessary, even legal?

Iron Sky vice president of sales Scott Frigaard said the system was well within legal boundaries.

Property marked as private would be blurred from view. The cameras keep in line with wiretap laws by not recording sound. the company has installed cameras over parks and streets in Hawthorne, Calif., and College Park, Ga., with successful results.

But will they work here? Glenn Hanff, 35, a New Port Richey native and editor of a medical newspaper, said Friday he was "very wary of Big Brother" and the idea of unchecked surveillance.

He wondered to what end the cameras could be used or abused — and just where the city would draw the line.

"We're New Port Richey. We're not New York City," he said. "I'm surprised people are so willing to let this encroachment of government happen."

• • •

The idea that cameras can fight crime has already gained a local foothold. Last year, in St. Petersburg, Mayor Bill Foster called security cameras core to his "Foster Formula." This spring, in Tampa, Hillsborough deputies began monitoring 20 cameras marked with gold stars and blue strobes across the high-crime university area. And in March and April, in Treasure Island, officers watched spring break crowds from two newly installed cameras on Sunset Beach.

New Port Richey has a surveillance system in place at the recreation center. The Iron Sky plan, however, calls for replacing the older and out-of-operation cameras in place with 14 new units watching the skate park, basketball court, swimming pool, workout room and gymnasium.

If the plan passes with positive results, Rickus said, officials may consider adding more cameras to the Meadows Dog Park and the James E. Grey Preserve.

"There's a great move in this country right now to put up video cameras," Rickus said. "Most of the time, Big Brother's only watching when they have to."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

New Port Richey considers surveillance cameras 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 1:41pm]

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