St. Pete's new armored surveillance vehicle has cameras, not guns

11/08/12 Janelle Irwin
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The St. Petersburg Police Department unveiled the newest addition to their crime stopping fleet this morning – it’s an armored surveillance vehicle. The mobile monitoring device can record activity in a 360-degree radius during the day or night. The former Brinks cash truck won’t be manned by a police officer. But that doesn’t mean no one is watching the area around it. It will instead by monitored remotely by officers on an as-needed basis. St. Pete Police Chief Chuck Harmon said the idea is not to catch crime, but to deter it.

“The purpose of this thing is to be very overt so that people see it, it’s discouraging. It’s not a hidden camera where we’re trying to capture things, but there are cameras there that will capture things if things occur.”

The cameras inside are capable of rotating in a complete circle and zooming. They are equipped with night vision and even infrared technology. The city allocated $18,000 for the equipment. Political activist Leonard Schmiege said the vehicle provides a little too much spying power for his taste.

“I think it’s a waste of money. It shows a militarization of a city which is a shame and I disagree with spending that money on it.”

But according to Police Chief Harmon, the surveillance vehicle isn’t meant to monitor private residences or into windows.

“It’s really meant to look for the exterior activity going on around buildings not into buildings. So, that’s the privacy we’re speaking of. We’re not trying to target into a business, into a residence, none of those things. We will have some justification for parking it there obviously. We’re going to look at – anybody could go in there and view those areas that we’re looking at.”

But the graphics on the giant truck announce with bright green glowing eyes that the truck is watching. The design is based on student artwork submissions and was honed by the parks and recreation teen group called TASCO. Robert Norton is on the team that completed the $12,000 project.

“We met the day before – or two days before the Fourth of July – we made everything the day before, we were off Fourth of July and then we had our large Treasure Island Beach Bash and that’s where we solicited the kids with their ideas. So, we kind of threw that together really quick and then we were able to move a little slower to get everything done. We had never designed anything like this before. If you can imagine designing a graphic that’s seven and half feet wide by six and a half feet high just on one side and we had to create three sides to it in all.”

Police Chief Harmon expects to start using the mobile surveillance vehicle as soon as next week. But he doesn’t know where it will be parked yet. The agency plans to determine where it would prevent the most crime and partner with city council. What Harmon does know is officers may have to park the vehicle illegally.

“Because of the size, we may have to park it not necessarily in compliance with our parking laws – we may have to go up on the right of way a little bit so we don’t obstruct traffic …yeah, no yard parking. But we’re trying to put it in areas that are visible at night that are lit up so you can see it.”

The unveiling comes as St. Pete City Council members are entering their second year of fumbling over what to do with the raucous crowds in downtown bars. In a workshop today, city council members batted ideas around that included passing an ordinance that would require high volume bars to obtain a permit for serving alcohol after midnight. City Council member Jeff Danner said that would encourage business owners to keep their establishments in order.

“I mean, if you went to that property owner and said, ‘if you don’t do A-H you lose your income for thirty days, if you do it twice you lose it for a year.’ I think that would be a tool.”

Another provision would require those same establishments to hire an off duty police officer for security on weekends. Danner was concerned that would negatively impact busy bars that don’t tend to have problems while ignoring some that do.

“Your bar has over two hundred so you have to pay. It might not be a problem and when we looked at that map and looked at that occupancy load, there was a lot of them that had 197 that weren’t going to be required that I know are problems that are outside that boundary that we know are problems that aren’t going to be in on that.”

Council members sparred over possible solutions like using service call records as a basis for whether or not an establishment should have to fork out the cash for off duty cops. That went no where because it would discourage businesses from calling for help. So Police Chief Harmon suggested his agency be given discretion over whether or not the extra security was needed.

“If we had a facility that didn’t cause us any issues or had no calls for service in the last 12 months or done something like that – maybe that’s something we can do if that would help council get over the hump of doing that … but that’s something I’d be willing to look at because I think Randy would tell you you’ve probably got six or seven – six – really that we’re talking about … we need some flexibility like that.”

No decisions were made today, but council members all agreed that something needs to be done. They decided to send the matter “upstairs” to a regular council meeting in the future where they can hash out the details as a whole body instead of in committees.

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