When Noah Smith and Keymarion Hall, both 16, were shot and killed in related drive-bys in January and May in South Bunnell, and when there was another unsolved shooting in the interim or an armed robbery, the city’s surveillance camera system was useless. The city had installed it in 2011. It worked for a while. But the city gradually gave up on it for various reasons.
The two homicides and the armed robbery have been solved, with now-ubiquitous private home or business surveillance cameras playing a key role. But Bunnell Police Chief Dave Brannon is looking to reinvent the city’s surveillance camera system, upgrading it, expanding it, and making it accessible to its own law enforcement officers and the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, as both a crime deterrent and an after-the-fact investigative tool.
“We have no interest at all in what good people are doing and law abiding folks are doing, we only want to have these resources in place to catch the bad guys,” Brannon said Tuesday evening.
To that end, and with the memory of recent violent crimes in fresh memory, the Bunnell City Commission Monday evening voted to direct City Manager Alvin Jackson to contract with Motorola for an estimated $250,000 plan that would replace seven, existing but non-functional camera locations with a new system, phase in an additional six locations (with two to three cameras at each location), with new poles, electrical work and connectivity, and add 10 license plate readers for $25,000 in the first year, and $30,000 for each additional year, for a five-year cost of $145,000.
If the city sticks only to the first phase–the replacement of cameras at seven existing locations–its five-year cost would be $117,500, including cellular costs but not including the license plate readers.
The city may opt to buy the system, eliminating leasing costs but not maintenance costs. The difference is not yet clear. Jackson will bring that proposal to the commission at a subsequent meeting.
Palm Coast, Flagler County and the school board have innumerable surveillance cameras on their properties, including public parks, and Palm Coast has traffic cameras in many places. But Bunnell would be the first local government to train surveillance cameras directly on streets and street corners in a specific part of the city. Bunnell is the city’s highest-crime area.
If there are any concerns about targeting the predominantly Black area of the city, they may be misplaced: the proposal drew unanimous approval from the five-member commission and near-unanimous approval from the public in attendance, including two former city commissioners and a former sheriff’s office sergeant, all three Black, all of whom either grew up in or still live in South Bunnell: it is the community itself that is clamoring for the system as much as city government. A community group is even looking to pay for half the cost of a camera on top of those the city is proposing, if the city pays the other half.
Bonita Robinson, a former city commissioner and a resident of South Bunnell, spoke appreciatively of getting the cameras back up and running. “Since the loss of life of two young men in the Southside community, the residents and families and members and other organizations have come together in an attempt to work on making it a bit safer for our children and our families, just a safe place for our children and families to live and work, play,” Robinson said.
“We spoke with Mr. Jackson earlier in regards to getting a camera put in and due to safety issues,” she continued, referring to City Manager Alvin Jackson, “and right now, safety is a priority due to the growth in the homeless population and the illegal activities that’s in the park near the Carver Center area, we’re proposing to come up with half the price of one camera for that area, and we’re asking the board tonight to help us along with Bunnell PD to make this area safe for all of us. Your police department is doing a tremendous job in the community, and their presence is being noticed, as well as their community policing tactics. This is something we haven’t had in a long time.”
Robinson said the Sheriff’s Office, the NAACP, Flagler Surge, St. James Baptist Church, the Carver Foundation and its governing board and others are all in support. She said her organization is raising fund to pay for its share of the camera. The fields and the park outside the center.
Daisy Henry, another former commissioner and current resident of South Bunnell–on East Drain Street, the same street where Carver Gym is located–said since Carver Gym is a joint operation between the county and the school board, those entities could help.
But Henry alone raised privacy issues. “You’ve got families that come out there in that park to help family fun,” the former commissioner said. “And if you monitoring everything that a family do in their park, that, I believe, takes away some of their privacy of the concerned citizen even though health safety and welfare is an issue for the homeless.” She commended the police department for doing a good job monitoring the park.
Calvin Grant, who retired from the Flagler County Sheriff’s deputy after a long career, and grew up in what he described as “the area of concern,” noted Henry’s reference to families and privacy. “The cameras is not being requested to monitor what a family is doing. When you say cameras, people get a little gun shy. The cameras is to monitor criminal activity, and if the homeless population is conducting or being a part of criminal activity, because every time the news comes out, the landmark is Carver Gym. Beautiful things are happening at Carver Gym, so if I had a family reunion, I wouldn’t mind at all if my family was being monitored. If anybody at a family reunion is conducting criminal activity, they shouldn’t be having a family reunion right at a parks and recreation Center. So it’s not the concern of monitoring.”
Grant may have been was missing Henry’s point, however, the concern with 24-hour, blanket monitoring being that it potentially reverses the equation, making everyone guilty until proven innocent, it can be discriminatory and abused–the commission did not discuss what policies or procedures would be in place to ensure against abuse, who would have access, under what circumstances–and the evidence that it reduces violent crime is contradictory (with some studies concluding it does not, some concluding that cameras have a “modest” crime-reduction effect, and some, while acknowledging contradictions, saying cameras can work, but in association with other strategies: cameras alone aren’t the solution. For example, London has more than 600,000 surveillance cameras blanketing the city–and police there are entering into facial-recognition technology–
Brannon, who recently retired as a commander from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office after a long career there, said “policy and procedure would be established by the chief of police in directing the police officers in how to use the system.”
“We’re not targeting that area,” Branon said of South Bunnell. “We are providing the means of having video footage should we have another homicide,” like the two earlier this year, he said, “or another significant crime that occurs” to help investigators identify suspects. South Bunnell, he said, “is where we’ve experienced significant violent crime, and some of these investigations, we don’t always have eyewitness testimony. Some of the testimony we get is not always accurate.” Cameras would help “immensely” in providing a layer of objective evidence.
Bunnell IT Director Don Wines briefed the commission on the proposal (the administration was recommending Motorola, after receiving several proposals). Wines was barely done when Commissioner John Rogers, without a single question from the commission, hurried in a motion to go with Motorola.
“I did my research on it, it’s been a long time coming,” Rogers said in an interview afterward. He recalled the last time the city used its cameras in a high-profile case, if not quite in a violent crime or even as a key tool in its investigation: it was when a west Flagler resident who frequently committed minor infractions rode through the city on horseback, with several Bunnell cops setting chase.
Rogers said he did all his research before Monday’s meeting, asking all his questions to Jackson and Branon. “I know our chief really wanted this camera system, the community wants it,” he said. “I think it’ll deter and it’ll solve crimes a lot faster.”
Bunnell’s police department a decade and more ago was a blot on the city’s image, the scene of serial misconduct among officers, several of whom were indicted, convicted, fired or resigned as a result, including because of abuses of power and police technology–illegal database searches, including of city commissioners’ records, among them.
Rogers remembers those days. He had no concerns about the ethical use of the surveillance system with Branon in place. “Leadership starts at the top, and the chief who’s in place now is an example of excellence,” Rogers said. “He will not tolerate any kind of behavior or activity from his uniformed officers, like decades ago–he would not tolerate that kind of activity. The chief will be the one that will monitor that situation.”
The existing system, originally installed by Web Watchdogs, a local vendor, had seven locations, with two fixed cameras at each, with limited, roughly 90 to 100-degree fields of vision. The system, Wines said, was only compatible with Windows 7. That system’s usability ended in January 2020, making the cameras inoperable. IT requested money for upgrades three years running. “They were considered a low priority,” Wines said. So the city stopped maintaining them. “If a hard drive failed, I just pulled the power off the location,” he said.
The new cameras would provide a 360-view, zoom features, real-time footage giving law enforcement the ability to use the cameras as an incident unfolds, and enough cameras to minimize or eliminate blind spots.
Some vendors provided quotes, some didn’t, because the city’s request for proposals was not precise enough. One vendor was to provide huge storage capacity (54 TB), but its cost would be $352,820, and the city doesn’t even have a secure location where it could keep its server–not until its new city hall is built on Commerce Parkway (city offices are spread out in strip malls, the police department is in a trailer).
Phase one would replace the cameras at the seven existing locations, with three cameras in each location. Phase two would add six locations, with new poles. Palm Coast has fiberoptic cable in the area and would provide connectivity.
Commissioner Robert Barnes was concerned about storage, and a server giving the city that capacity. A server is not part of the cost estimate.
State law requires video data to be stored at least 30 days. “Essentially that’s what they’re talking about, storing on the camera itself,” Wines said. “Motorola does have the ability through a software program that they have to put it on a server. They didn’t–Motorola didn’t–see the need for it.”
To be compatible with the Sheriff’s Office, Bunnell would have to use Vigilant, the software the Sheriff’s Office uses (it is owned by a Motorola subsidiary). Ten such cameras would cost $25,000, plus annual software access cost of $30,000. Combined with the leasing of non LPR cameras, the annual access cost alone would be $87,415, based on Wines’s calculation, plus $5,600 for cellular service.
“We know where we’re in the price range when we leave this meeting, and basically we start negotiating a contract with Motorola, and when we bring that contract back, basically we will have the full price,” Jackson said. The administration is undecided between leasing or owning the system outright, so the dollar figures discussed Monday could change considerably. The way to go “will be a part of our recommendation when we come back with the contract,” Jackson said.
A Grand Reserve resident who addressed the commission requested that the city pursue grant funding before spending the money on the system, unless the spending is reimbursable. “We’re talking about a lot of money here, and I know there are resources available for things like this through either state or federal grants,” he said. Jackson said grants will be in the mix as the city phases in the system.