Police will watch Gasparilla crowd with cameras bought for RNC

Tampa police will use the system installed for last year's GOP convention.
Published January 16 2013
Updated January 17 2013

TAMPA — Go ahead, guzzle beer. Yell for beads. But be careful.

Someone may be watching.

For the first time, Tampa police will monitor the annual Gasparilla Pirate Fest parade with security cameras — the $2 million system installed downtown for the Republican National Convention.

But officers monitoring the cameras won't be looking for people with open containers of alcohol, police Chief Jane Castor said Wednesday. That will be an issue for other officers posted along the parade route's perimeter.

Instead, officers will monitor the stationary cameras downtown — as well as five mobile camera units set up along Bayshore Boulevard — for fights, disturbances and other crimes.

"We will also be on the lookout if a child gets separated," Castor said. "Or if anyone gets injured, we'll be able to alert fire-rescue to that."

The festival, which is Jan. 26 this year, draws an estimated 300,000 people to South Tampa for a brunch at the Tampa Convention Center, a flotilla in the bay and the pirate parade along Bayshore Boulevard and into downtown.

After the Republican convention in August, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn decided to keep the 58 surveillance cameras up, despite the concerns of some City Council members. The cameras have since been used to help solve a rape downtown.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has said for months that it does not want police to monitor the cameras at all — and that includes during Gasparilla, state president Mike Pheneger said Wednesday.

"People go to Gasparilla to have a good time, not to be monitored by police," said Pheneger, a retired Army colonel.

He said that in his recollection, police usually do not see much serious crime during Gasparilla — so why would they need to use the cameras now? he wondered.

"It sounds like (Chief Castor) wants to use them for a set of problems that haven't materialized in previous Gasparilla parades," Pheneger said.

Besides the cameras, police also plan to roll out some of the other equipment purchased with a $50 million federal security grant for the convention.

That includes the chariotlike T3 Motions and the souped-up golf carts called Bobcats. And Kona bicycles will be especially useful for navigating thick crowds, Castor said.

Police will also use horses and Segways to get around.

The agency also purchased several "long-range acoustic devices" for the RNC that work like extra-powerful megaphones. Police will post the devices along the parade route so that officers can make announcements about issues such as a lost child or traffic jams, Castor said.

But what about the biggest piece of equipment — the 16,000-pound armored SWAT truck — purchased for the convention?

That will remain garaged.

Tampa police will drive an older SWAT truck in the parade, and the young sons of slain police Officer David Curtis will have honored spots on it.

"It's harder to see out of the new one, for the kids in the parade," Castor said.

Otherwise, policing Gasparilla will work much as it did last year, when authorities unveiled a system for penalizing people with open containers of alcohol outside the parade route.

Before 2012, between 200 and 400 people typically were arrested annually at Gasparilla on alcohol charges.

But officials did not want to send people age 21 and older home with a criminal record if they were only carrying an open container of alcohol.

So authorities started issuing civil citations. Instead of being criminally charged, the offender is fined — like getting a speeding ticket. The first time, it's $75. By the fourth, it's $450.

Last year, police issued 302 civil citations for open containers. They arrested 27 underage drinkers and eight people driving under the influence and made 28 other arrests.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.