St. Petersburg sets up six surveillance cameras in three parks

ST. PETERSBURG — Soon the city will be able to pan, zoom and focus in on crime — or so the mayor hopes.

Six remote-controlled surveillance cameras were installed in three city parks in recent weeks as St. Petersburg begins experimenting with a public safety promise Mayor Bill Foster made during his campaign: using video surveillance technology to extend the reach of police.

"We're still a ways away from really seeing these as a crime-fighting tool," Foster said. "But we try to get closer every day."

Two cameras have been installed in each of Williams, Lake Vista and Fossil parks, and soon signs will go up warning patrons the areas are being electronically monitored.

The cameras range in price from $1,200 to $2,500 and, all together, cost the city about $11,000. The mayor said he's looking to see if federal grants will help pay for the program.

The cameras will be able to record video footage and will be monitored from St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters using recycled equipment and screens. That setup is still being put together.

But their use will be limited. No one will be watching them 24/7.

Instead, the mayor hopes the presence of the cameras and signs will deter crime. And if crimes do occur, the video footage could help solve them.

Foster also wants officers to be able to watch surveillance footage and control the cameras from their vehicle laptops.

Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said that while officers won't be monitoring the cameras for now, they could if needed. "If you had an event in a park and we needed someone to watch the crowd at the park," Proffitt said, "we could do something about it."

The cameras are all mounted on city property and are supposed to be shielded from vandalism and theft. This pilot program will help city officials determine the best spots to place the cameras and how best to use them. The city will use its findings to draw up a surveillance camera policy.

Such cameras already are being used on the other side of the bay. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office used a federal grant to install 20 cameras in high-crime neighborhoods west of the University of South Florida. The Tampa Police Department operates a dozen cameras along Ybor City's popular Seventh Avenue. But those systems are monitored by officers.

Treasure Island installed two cameras to keep an eye on Sunset Beach. Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota, West Palm Beach and communities throughout Florida are installing cameras.

But they have their limits: Orlando spent $1.4 million on its own high-tech camera system but can't afford to staff the cameras or the software that detects criminal activity, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Civil libertarians have their issues with them, but camera networks already exist throughout the private sector: at banks, convenience stores, ATMs and Walmarts, for example.

This technology shouldn't be confused with the facial-recognition program pioneered by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which has built a database of more than 7.5 million offenders. That software is used to identify suspects caught on surveillance footage or those who simply won't give their names.

St. Petersburg police recently joined the sheriff's program, but that software won't be used in conjunction with these surveillance cameras, the mayor said. Tampa used such technology during the 2001 Super Bowl and in Ybor City, but later scrapped the program.

During the campaign, the mayor said he'd like to see the cameras installed in crime "hot spots" and tourist centers. But the mayor wouldn't say exactly where the cameras would eventually show up.

He did say, though, that privacy would be a foremost concern. The cameras will not be used to peer onto private property, he said.

"Where could they go? Wherever they will help," Foster said. "I certainly don't like Big Brother and big government. It's not for people to spy on the public.

"But if they're used in certain spots, they can be used as a safety measure."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

St. Petersburg sets up six surveillance cameras in three parks 11/21/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 22, 2010 5:00pm]

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