This is the blog for Robert Vincent, Chief of Police for the Gulfport (Florida) Police Department. Please feel free to leave comments, but keep in mind that anything appearing on this page may be subject to retention and disclosure in accordance with Florida public records law.

Please keep your posts clean and respectful. Comments are subject to review, and I do not permit lewdness, obscenity, or personal attacks.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Public Surveillance Cameras?

The planned replacement of a defective camera at the city marina appears to have stirred some residents to action on a subject that has been a smoldering hot topic for some time now. The idea of placing surveillance cameras on public rights of way was proposed several years ago in Gulfport, but it has never had the support necessary to get off the ground. What's the deal?

First off, this is a very controversial subject. Public opinion is split on the idea, but I think it's fair to say that a lot of people are opposed to the idea of having the government watch their every move as they go about their business on public streets and sidewalks. This is something very different than cameras placed for the security of a specific facility. People understand and even expect facilities to be under surveillance, but American society has not yet completely accepted the idea of being watched while on public land.

The other reason this is potentially controversial in Gulfport has to do with the cultural differences between ours and neighboring communities. Most supporters have suggested that cameras be placed along 49th Street because of its perceived higher crime. I just hate to think of the negative impact that might have on the residents of the Child's Park neighborhood (which has a predominately minority population) who sometimes express a distrust of the Gulfport authorities. Our community policing efforts absolutey require the support of that community, and I am hesitant to embark on any projects which might undermine their support.

In spite of these controversial issues, I am not opposed to the use of public surveillance cameras. I know they can be very valuable in detecting, preventing, and investigating crimes and disorder problems. I would, however, demand that public input, as well as input from neighboring communities, be included in any policy development and decisions on where cameras are to be placed.

Of course, controversy is not the only obstacle. Cost is another issue entirely. An effective system requires high-resolution, low-light cameras that are weather-proof and capable of remote pan, tilt, and zoom. It requires wireless connectivity so that the video feeds can be viewed by staff members (or the public) from the Internet. It requires security features to keep the cameras from being stolen or vandalized. And finally, it requires trained and dedicated people to monitor the video feeds. All things considered, even a basic system could run into six figures, which is money we just do not have.

Some ask why it is necessary to monitor the live video. The truth is that latent camera footage is not as valuable as many think. Very often, we have a clear video of a crime that has occurred at some facility or other, but we have no clue as to the identity of the suspect. Sure, this evidence is valuable if we are able to identify a perpetrator through other means, but the video alone is not worth much. The true value in a surveillance system is the ability to monitor it live and send officers to intervene when suspicious activity is observed.

Live monitoring is exactly how these systems have been successful in cities such as London and even Orlando. Injured officers on light duty watch the monitors from over a hundred cameras deployed in Orlando, and they dispatch on-duty officers whenever they see something that looks out of place. Unfortunately, Gulfport only has people in such a capacity on a sporadic basis. In order to be effective at monitoring a surveillance system, we would have to employ a crew specifically for that purpose.

So, the bottom line. . .I would love to have a public video surveillance system in Gulfport, but only if our residents and those of our neighboring cities support the concept and the considerable financial commitment that goes along with it. If this is something you are passionate about, get in touch with me and we will see what we can do about finding that support. Likewise, if you are against this idea, I'd love to hear your concerns.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Community Policing-Making the Most of COPS Grant

You may have heard by now that the U.S. Department of Justice office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) awarded Gulfport a grant to fund one police officer position for three years. What may not have trickled out are the details on exactly how that police officer will be employed.

Conditions of the grant require that the agency dedicate the equivalent of one full time officer to working on specific, community-policing projects. While this may seem simple enough, the question on many minds is--what exactly is community policing?

First of all, this is not a new idea--Wyatt Earp practiced a form of community policing when he enforced the "no firearms" ordinance in the city of Tombstone. Essentially, anything that combines the efforts of the police with the collective desires and resources of the community they serve is community policing. The idea is based on economics, really; it is the answer to the question: "what is the most efficient way to keep the neighborhood safe?"

Actually, it may be easier to define community policing by describing what it is not. The most common misconception is that the police will take care of everything. Many expect that their responsibility is limited to reporting violations they personally observe, and that once these violations are reported, the police will handle it from there. The truth is, if everything is left up to the police, then very little is going to be accomplished. No law enforcement agency has the resources that would be required to actively pursue every complaint, crime, and incident through to resolution. In fact, police absolutely require the active participation of community members to assist in identifying and addressing problems.

It may seem at first that this is an attempt to brush aside responsibility, but the reality is that by using true community policing techniques, we can accomplish a great deal with as little expense as possible. Consider this example: a neighborhood experiences several vehicle burglaries. Primarily, the target vehicles were left unlocked and parked on a dark part of the street. In response, I could assign several officers to randomly patrol the neighborhood looking for suspicious persons, or I could assign one officer to enlist the support of the entire community. The one officer could engage the media and crime watch groups to alert residents and recommend that vehicles be locked and parked in well-lit driveways when possible. The one officer could seek out crime prevention tools from private businesses. The one officer could coordinate with the investigations unit to ensure that all cases are reviewed together rather than individually. The one officer could distribute photos of known auto burglars to local residents and businesses. The one officer could identify informal community leaders to help engage others in the neighborhood to become more involved in crime prevention efforts.

In the end, the work done by the one officer would likely have a greater impact on resolving the problem. At the same time, it would have used one-third of the resources as compared to simply assigning officers to do extra patrol. More. . . for less.

Of course, in order for this kind of work to be productive, the officers responsible must take steps to identify those in the community who are able and likely to help. They need to know and become familiar with business owners, church leaders, non-profit resources, community organizations, activist residents, government services, and any other entity that could potentially provide assistance when a problem arises. Seeking out and developing partnerships with these resources is the key to community policing. Through coordinating their collective knowledge and abilities, one police officer can do what would otherwise require three or four.

How is this all related to our COPS grant? Well, I intend to employ this one police officer in a capacity where he or she will be responsible for these kinds of community-policing efforts in what many consider to be our highest crime neighborhood--the 49th Street redevelopment area. The officer assigned to this position will focus almost exclusively on establishing and maintaining relationships with business and community leaders for the purpose of identifying and resolving crime and disorder problems. His or her work will supplement, not replace, that of the officers already assigned to this patrol zone, and I have high hopes that their combined efforts will go a long way toward changing opinions about this particular neighborhood.

The new community resource officer should be on the job by the new year. I will be making a selection and announcing the decision within the next few weeks. The officer assigned will report to Sergeant Josh Stone, who is in charge of our special enforcement team. While the primary responsibility will be the 49th Street redevelopment area, the community resource officer will also be available to help officers in other patrol zones to coordinate their own community policing activities. This will be a resource for the entire city.

Check back for updates on this topic, and as always, I welcome your input.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Golf Carts and Public Safety

Last week, I was asked to give a presentation to the city council regarding the feasibility of allowing golf carts to operate legally on Gulfport roadways. In the days leading up to that workshop session, many asked for my opinion on the issue, and indeed I expressed some concerns. Since my presentation, I have discovered that some may consider me an obstacle to the legalization of golf carts in Gulfport.

Please let me take a moment to clarify my position on this touchy subject.

I am not opposed to the safe operation of these vehicles on our roadways. My concern is that nobody has any way to determine what is or is not safe. There are no established standards, and absent those standards, the city puts itself at risk by attempting to create its own.

The staus quo is that golf carts are illegal. Golf carts, which are designed for operation on golf courses at speeds less than 20 miles per hour, may not be driven on public roadways. There is a reason for this; the legislature recognizes that they are inherently unsafe, specifying that if cities want to make an exception to the rule, they do so at their own risk. The law gives municipal governments the authority to allow these vehicles to be operated on city roads, but only after making a determination that those roads are safe in consideration of the speed, volume, and character of traffic. Unfortunately, neither the federal or state departments of transportation have published criteria for what constitutes safe speed, volume, or character. This means that the city is responsible for establishing those definitions, and I simply do not believe our staff is qualified to do so. The DOT employs traffic engineers and analysts who develop such policies based on extensive research and use of specialized equipment and software. Local governments rely on their expertise because we do not have access to those kinds of resources.

If we do proceed with developing our own standards, the logical next step is to consider what others have done. Several other cities and neighborhoods have passed ordinances allowing golf cart operation on roadways. I have looked at many of these, and I have seen some trends in what they consider safe. Some common traits:

1. Speed limits do not exceed 30 mph
2. Roadways are no more than two lanes
3. Residential areas only

Applying these standards to Gulfport would eliminate 49th Street north of 23rd Avenue, all of Gulfport Blvd., and some portions of Beach Blvd. In fact, if Pinellas County holds fast to its own rules, they would actually prohibit golf cart operation on county roads within the city of Gulfport, thereby eliminating 58th Street as well. Curiously, none of the other cities seem to have addressed traffic volume in their standards. Considering the amount of traffic, I think it would be prudent to exclude 15th Avenue, and maybe even 11th Avenue from the list of permitted roads.

What we end up with is a city divided into exclusion zones, if you will. Unless we allow carts to cross roadways they may not otherwise drive upon, the vehicles would never be allowed to leave their home neighborhoods. If we do allow crossings, we will have to make some determinations as to where it is safe to cross these streets. Again, there are no established standards.

Aside from the issue of deciding which streets to use, we also have to consider a multitude of other questions. Do we require licensed drivers, insurance, safety equipment, electric motors only, etc? Each of these would have to be addressed in the city ordinance, and they would all be subject to regulation by the police department.

Of note in consideration of this subject is the fact that modified golf carts are already legal on Gulfport roads. Fitted with certain safety equipment, golf carts may be legally registered as low-speed vehicles, which means they can be driven by licensed drivers on public streets with speed limits up to 35 miles per hour. Because these vehicles are certified by their manufacturer and recognized by the state to be safe for public operation, the city assumes no risk or responsibility for their use. The down side, of course, is that they cost more money to purchase and maintain.

In the end, the decision is up to the elected officials. My job is simply to give them as much information as I can before they make that decision and then to enforce the rules they put in place. Whatever we decide as a community, I am happy to do my part to make it work.