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.


  1. Mr. Vincent you make some good points, though they're not new to the argument. If the social concern is that the cameras would intrude into the activity of Child's Park residents, then why aren't they up in arms now, while your cruisers park on 15th avenue corner facing the Quik Stop store? The Cruisers have cameras and the Child's Park residents know it.

    We're talking about a Redevelopment area, and though it's been under the auspices of redevelopment for over a decade, and some superficial development has occurred, the primary problem still remains, which is not cultural, it's criminal. It doesn't matter if a Boombox car has a white, black, brown or pink with purple poker dot guy driving it, the noise is the issue not the person.

    Gulfport leaders and residents aside, the Mayor of St. Petersburg Bill Foster agrees with cameras. Wengay Newton (Newt) Child's Park Councilman agrees with cameras and they both told me that on the same day that Mayor Yates said "I can get it done", and Sam Henderson said; "I'm for it if we can afford it".

    It's consistently been a circular argument around perception of crime, perception of feelings, perception of cost, perception of need, and as we go-round and around the conditions do not change and the redevelopment does not occur and the buildings along the corridor empty out. The strip mall on 14th ave has 8 units, 3 are occupied. One unit is only use to park a truck. One unit is occupied by the Gabber, who has had their share of crime bestowed upon them and one unit leaves it's front door locked. One would think after a decade of redevelopment that the residents of Gulfport would have the confidence to come to 49th street day or night, and that the businesses along the corridor wouldn't feel the need to lock their doors to the public or keep a 100 pound Rotweiler at the ready along with their security equipment. Is it really just about perception? I think not. These people have learned from experience, as we all have, as most of the residents of this City have, that you do not chance 49th street when there are safer alternatives.

    As for the cost, well one could say it's a million dollars just to create the perception that it's out of reach, but I know better. If the Department and the Courts would accept my video footage I would replace my camera tomorrow. By the way, I bought the night vision Sony camera from Harvard University. They had pulled it out of one of their telescopes and replaced it. The camera worked through the storms in 2004-5. I paid $100, $50 for software, and I had the extra computer, an old G3 tower I used specifically for that purpose, but it could run on any computer in the background. The footage, although not Official, was used in still shot form by Chief Willocks. The laundromat was rebuilt as a result of footage observing drug deals at the broken doorway in the back alley.

    We can continue to accept the conditions as they are and make inductive arguments until doomsday or we can take it one step at a time, one camera at a time in one critical area at a time. We will never achieve redevelopment with informal logic, we have to move forward. Presently there are more patrols here, by both Cities and the result can be seen and heard. Now ask yourself, how much does it cost? How long can it be sustained? And when the police go back to whatever they normally do how will you maintain the level of civility that this extra attention has delivered? What you are doing here and now is not new, we've seen extra attention paid through the years. It comes in spurts and then recedes and the incivility returns.

    If the object is to achieve redevelopment then a permanent solution will be required. The Redevelopment Area is a "" specific facility"" sir and the sooner this City stands up to their promise to treat it as such the sooner this area will develop into a desirable part of Gulfport Florida.

    Thank you for your time.

  2. The best deterrent to crime on 49th Street is economic development. Criminals operate best in dark, empty or under-developed locations. Neighborhoods deteriorate in relatively slow, incremental stages. Substantial neighborhood improvement happens rapidly when major, people- drawing investments happen there. The criminals are no longer able to operate in the vacuum they so desire.

    Investment will not come until there is a widespread perception of safety in an area. As a jumpstart to development, manned cameras in the redevelopment area may be necessary at least until people and places fill the vacuum that now exists and criminals go elsewhere to plague yet another dying neighborhood.

    With the substantial investment Gulfport, St. Petersburg and the state and federal government already have in the area, we cannot afford to not finish the deal by not trying to create an environment in which normal society can function. Investment in installing and manning a surveillance system is not simply a law enforcement matter. It is also a first, essential step in economic development on both sides of 49th Street.

    If everyone in the area had a vision, a hope that prosperity could return to their neighborhood and criminals could be driven out, I am certain that there would be little or no objection to a temporary measure such as surveillance to get the ball rolling.

    It is elitist to think that the vast majority of residents of the Childs Park Area are any less interested in getting rid of crime than are residents of Gulfport. Because so little has been done for so long, there is a deep cynicism on both sides of the street. Given some hope, their support, albeit skeptical would come and grow with each succeeding positive step.

    Both Gulfport and St. Petersburg would be beneficiaries of driving out crime and bringing jobs and tax producing investment into the area. It is both city's job to get outside the box and find ways to fund and operate the necessary first step to economic development. In this case, creative, multi-jurisdictional policing can be an integral part of the social and economic rebirth of a neighborhood.