ST. PETERSBURG — Five months ago, a couple bicycling on the Pinellas Trail near 46th Street S suddenly found themselves on the ground, shoved off their bikes by two teenage robbers. One of the teens pistol-whipped the woman, knocking out several teeth, before the boys rode away on the stolen bikes.
The robbery was one of a string of incidents that prompted St. Petersburg police to step up patrols on a stretch of trail prone to crime.
Now, the city plans to put digital eyes in the sky there.
Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration is moving forward with a pilot project at a cost of about $100,000 to install about two dozen surveillance cameras between 43rd and 49th streets south, said Evan Mory, director of transportation and parking. The cameras could be in place by fall, he said, making St. Petersburg the first city to install cameras on the trail.
City officials had hoped Pinellas County, which owns and maintains the 42-mile trail, would chip in up to $75,000 for the project, but county officials said no.
"We don't want to wait any longer, so we're going to prioritize this and get it done in the short term," Mory said. "We'd be happy to accept funding if the answer changes."
According to the city, the cameras will operate 24/7, using infrared technology at night. The system features higher resolution cameras at entry and exit points and lower resolution cameras along the trail. The feeds would not be continuously monitored, but officers could view real-time feeds from police headquarters, laptops in patrol cars and even smartphones.
Asked about concerns trail users might have about being subject to surveillance, City Council member Wengay Newton said improving safety is more than an even tradeoff.
"We have people preying on other people," he said. "If it helps one person, it's worth it."
The city of Bradenton has had success with the same system at its Riverwalk, Mory said. Several local officials, including Newton, City Council member Steve Kornell and County Commissioner Ken Welch, planned to visit Bradenton on Monday to look at the system.
The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization — which includes three county commissioners, two St. Petersburg council members and representatives from other Pinellas cities — voted unanimously in June to support the project and ask the county to help with funding.
City Council member Jim Kennedy, acting as MPO vice chairman, wrote a letter to interim County Administrator Mark Woodard asking for the county's participation.
The county is happy to assist with permitting and other logistics, but can't help with the bill, Woodard replied recently.
"Unfortunately, budget constraints and the precedent of county funding for a municipal law enforcement function is problematic," he wrote.
Seven local jurisdictions are responsible for law enforcement along the sections of trail in their borders, said County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel, who chairs the MPO board. Contributing money for cameras for one jurisdiction would open the door to requests from others, she said.
Seel called the project worthy but said the most appropriate way to fund the cameras is to apply for federal grant money set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Newton said the county and city should partner on the pilot project and use before-and-after crime data to bolster applications for grant dollars to expand the system to the rest of the trail.
The St. Petersburg Police Department supports the cameras as a way to deter crime on a section of trail that has been a hot spot in recent years, said spokesman Mike Puetz. It's part of a larger problem section that runs through secluded industrial areas between 49th and 16th streets south, Puetz said.
St. Petersburg police have reported four robberies along the trail so far this year, nine in 2013 and eight in 2012.
The camera system offers no guarantees, Puetz said, "but it will no doubt be a deterrent and enhance safety along that stretch."
Mory said the city hasn't identified a funding source for the cameras. A capital improvement fund and police forfeiture dollars are options. If the cost exceeds $100,000, the administration is required to bring the item to the council for a vote, Mory said.
Newton said he's confident it would garner support.
"Doing nothing," he said, "is not an option."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.