PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Eyes in the sky are the city's latest effort to curb crime at a local park and it seems to be working.
Sexual predators, thieves, mischief makers and litter bugs beware because the Police Department and the city's Parks and Recreation Department have stepped up patrols thanks to 14 cameras installed at Sportsman's Park at 201 N.W. Prima Vista Blvd. It's the first outdoor city venue to have cameras.
Three pan, zoom and tilt cameras and the other 11 fixed devices can monitor the park's entire 16 acres and transmit a live feed to the computers of certain Police Department officers, Parks and Recreation directors and the city manager.
City Council had a live video demonstration Monday night to see how the cameras work and how close they can zoom in on small objects night or day.
No arrests have been made since the cameras were installed in late October, said Chief John Bolduc, however there was a report last week where an officer had to go back and review the surveillance tape. The only crime he's witnessed on the Sportsman's cameras, Bolduc said, was a litter offense as a basketball player put out a cigar in the bushes behind the courts as a park attendant approached.
"People know they're on video, so people we don't want at the parks won't come to the parks," Bolduc said, adding the cameras can even zero in near the covered bathrooms where sexual offenders are likely to hide. "(The cameras) help keep people we don't want out. If something does happen, there's a pretty good chance we'll catch them."
For example, five iPhone thefts captured on camera at the Minsky gym at 750 Darwin Blvd. led to arrests, Senior Parks Officer Fred Knaggs said.
Cameras boost surveillance, said Bolduc, when the three parks officers, park attendant or volunteer patrols can't keep an eye on everything. Knaggs, who analyzes park crime statistics, said the cameras can't prevent crime from happening, but it seems to be decreasing petty thefts and car burglaries at Sportsman's Park.
"Crime stats in the park are a lot less since the implementation of the park security cameras," Knaggs said. "(The cameras) are a deterrent as are eyes and ears in the park. With cameras we can look back and review footage and prosecute to the fullest."
Sportsman's Park's pilot camera program is costing the city an estimated $30,000, said Parks and Recreation director Sherman Conrad, but it's worth every penny to keep people safe at the park. Cameras, increased patrols and better lighting, he said, were all safety measures requested by residents following the fatal March shooting at Sportsman's Park.
The chain-link fence surrounding the park's basketball courts was bolted shut for two months and the community left shaken after 23-year-old Fort Pierce resident Terry McKeliver shot and killed 25-year-old Margate resident Marcus Samuel on March 14 after an argument during a pick up game of basketball escalated. McKeliver was not charged, claiming he shot Samuel in self-defense after an altercation at the park.
After the city reopened the courts, it implemented a free park pass program, now with 750 members, that requires park goers to show a pass to a park attendant between peak times of 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. to enter the basketball courts. Anyone with a valid driver's license can obtain a pass, and they will be entered into a city database so if an incident occurs police know who to go after.
Park passes and cameras have changed who frequents the park, said Bolduc. Because Sportsman's basketball courts are some of the few lighted courts in the city, they would draw crowds from all over the Treasure Coast and nearby counties to wager on games. It was an underground basketball league, Bolduc said.
"Now, I see more smaller, neighborhood kids out there," he said. "Park safety is a No. 1 priority. Why have parks at all if they're not safe?"
All cameras have facial and license plate recognition capabilities and some have night vision capabilities to monitor the park, basketball courts and parking lots. The cameras are located primarily in areas where people congregate to watch sporting events. Officers can view live surveillance feed and assess the need to either make an appearance at the park or call in additional units to handle a situation as it may arise.
Some critics of the cameras might argue the "big brother effect" and say we're spying on them, Knaggs said, but there's more supporters who say they feel safer because of the extra monitoring.
"My child's safety is my first concern, so if the cameras help keep crime away, I'm all for them," said Mary White, who likes to take her 4-year old daughter to the playground when the weather's nice. She admits she stayed away from the park for months after the shooting.
Whispering Pines Park at 800 S.W. Darwin Blvd., is one of the city's most frequented and largest parks and may be wired for cameras next, Conrad said. If the program is effective there, he said, the parks department will look at budgeting
for cameras where necessary.
Park passes for the basketball courts at Sportsman's Park are issued at the community center, the Minsky gym or the Civic Center.