State Attorney R.J. Larizza joined Public Defender Jim Purdy in cautioning Bunnell to weigh costs and benefits against the small town’s drive to install more than a half dozen spy cameras in Bunnell’s black, south-side ghetto.
“The big quest I think for the city is cost. A cost-benefit analysis,” Larizza said. “Can they get a system that’s a quality system that will have a better likelihood” of producing the desired results, “or will they have a system that’s going to be ineffectual.”
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The Bunnell Police Department wants to install the system as a crime deterrent to drive out what Bunnell Police Chief Arthur Jones calls an “infestation” in the South side. Six or seven spy cameras would be installed at fixed points, with warning signs clearly telling residents or visitors that they are under surveillance. In Jones’s plan, another camera would be reserved for the area around Bunnell’s First United Methodist Church and Bank of America near the center of town, to keep an eye on homeless people who gather at the church and stay at the cold weather shelter there on nights when temperatures fall below 40.
The system’s initial $25,000 cost would be borne by a one-time contribution from the Flagler County Housing Authority, which is funded by federal money. But there would be recurring costs. If the city goes with a wireless system, those costs would be between $3,000 and $4,000 a year, but a wireless system is far less effective and efficient than a hard-wired system. A hard-wired system would put costs closer to $14,000, not including upgrades to police officers’ computers in order to handle the new system.
The Bunnell City Commission appeared ready to embrace the plan when Jones unveiled it last week. They had not decided which approach to take, however. Only one commissioner—Elbert Tucker—was opposed, saying the proposal would be too expensive, and the benefits too few: by having fixed cameras, Tucker said, anyone intending to do break the law would know where not to be. The only way the city could have an effective surveillance system is if every street were under a camera’s gaze, something the city can’t afford and isn’t considering.
“The bottom line is the value of a surveillance system,” Larizza said. “They may or may not be helpful and useful, whether it’s for a deterrent or for a prosecution. Whether or not it be valuable in my opinion would depend on the quality of the video and what you’re investigating. I don’t think the police department would have a lot to do with it once they’re put up there. They’re going to record what they’re going to record.”
Last week Purdy put it this way: “As a general rule they don’t show sufficient detail to be able to identify a person committing the crime. Whether they’re appropriate for a city the size of Bunnel is a policy decision to be made by the elected officials of the city. Whether it’ll be of assistance is another story.”
Larizza hadn’t been appraised of the proposed system by the city independently, and wondered who would control the cameras—the police department or the city administration. Under the plan proposed by Jones, the police would, without ready access by commissioners. But the police department is required to preserve every camera’s recording for at least 30 days under the state’s open record laws, and to make those available to anyone who asks. One exception is when a recording involves an ongoing investigation: those recordings may be shielded from the public, but only until the investigation is closed. In his presentation to the city, the costs did not reflect the dollars required to provide for enough data storage. Jones said those costs were folded into the overall costs presented to the commission.
The state attorney has been investigating the Bunnell Police Department since last year for irregularities, shoddy police work and record-keeping. The investigation forced the city to rescind an extortionist policy (the policy required anyone whose car was impounded to pay the city a $350 “administrative” fee, which was illegal) and led to the arrest of two Bunnell Police Department officers on police misconduct and other charges. The investigation also documented numerous cases of police racism against blacks.
Asked if he was concerned that the same police department would be controlling a permanent surveillance system trained on the city’s black section, Larizza was non-committal: “I’m not going to speculate on what might occur with the Bunnell Police Department or any law enforcement agency for that matter. I understand the concerns of the citizens of Bunnell, and I understand our investigation revealed a lot of events that caused a lot of that concern, but I’m comfortable they’re moving in the right direction.” Larizza said with watchdog citizens, activists and media, “the likelihood is much diminished that we have that kind of activity going on, and if it does, we’ll do what we have to do to make it stop.”