Cameras by numbers:
Surveillance – undisclosed number, at least eight
Police car dashboard – none
Surveillance – none
Dashboard – six out of 45 in fleet
Surveillance – none
Dashboard – installed in all 30 marked police cars
Surveillance – none, but in beginning planning stages
Dashboard – in process of installing in complete fleet, 90 percent have cameras
Walking up and down Park Avenue the past couple weeks you might not have noticed them, but they noticed you.
At least eight black, spherically capped surveillance cameras have been installed at intersections throughout downtown Winter Park by the Winter Park Police Department, Lt. Tom Pearson says, to help monitor crime and collect intelligence in the area.
The cameras were paid for through the city’s Homeland Security funds, with the police department fronting $35,000 itself for connectivity. They went live, recording 24/7, in mid-March. Pearson declined to identify how many cameras were installed and where. The Observer located eight of them.
“Their main purpose is to monitor with the general idea of public safety in mind,” Pearson said. “…We see it as an opportunity for Winter Park residents to benefit and for us to be omnipresent where we can’t always have an officer present.”
But with the thoughts of increasingly being watched, whether it be from these surveillance cameras, red-light cameras, or those mounted on the dashboards of police cars, some residents have the feeling that “Big Brother” government has arrived, while others see it as just catching up with technological times.
Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley says the cameras are the reality of the technological world we live in today.
“Cameras, like lights, make places safer… I have no reason to believe anyone’s rights have been threatened or violated,” he said.
But on the defense, John Dingfelder, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has consistently opposed the use of cameras to monitor public places, says this sort of surveillance is just the tip of the iceberg.
“If people get too comfortable with giving up their rights to privacy on the sidewalk, then the next step is the rights to privacy elsewhere,” he said. “Little by little, that’s how we lose our rights.”
Many residents and business owners say even though they’ve been walking and running business under the cameras’ surveillance for weeks, they had no idea they were there, or that they were being recorded.
Lt. Pearson said there has been no public announcement regarding the cameras or their locations. He says there are two sides to the debate on whether cameras should be publicized or not. If known to be there, he said, the cameras could possibly deter criminal activity, but also limit the amount of intelligence the department can gain from the footage, which is continuously recorded, but not live monitored, except during large-scale public events.
Park Avenue shopper Jennifer Green says she doesn’t view the cameras as an invasion of her privacy.
“If people don’t have anything to hide than it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I think it only ensures that if something does happen that it can be investigated.”
Winter Park resident Paul Vonder Heide disagrees.
“For people who like [cameras], it gives them a false sense of security, that the ‘camera will protect them,’” he wrote in a letter to the editor. “For people who do not, it is an invasion of privacy, over-the-top big brother government snooping on everything every citizen does, and scares good people from Winter Park because they think the city's surveillance cams mean that Winter Park is a high-crime area.”
Winter Park resident Casey Barton can see how some may view the camera as a “big brother” phenomenon, but says he views it as sign of the times.
“I’m not worried about crime on Park Avenue,” he said. “I think it’s just that we’re on the cutting-edge of technology and that this is something the city can afford to do to help with public safety.”
Carson Gray, manager at Luma on Park, says he thinks the cameras will add to the security his restaurant has already been working on for years, installing their own surveillance cameras to monitor their valet service. He says the footage from their cameras has in the past helped substantiate claims where cars have been hit outside the restaurant, and drivers have left the scene.
“We don’t have many people ask about them because not many people realize that they’re there, and if they do, they understand the purpose,” he said.
Winter Park Chamber of Commerce President Patrick Chapin says he hasn’t had any residents or business owners complain to the Chamber about the cameras. He says he believes that the vast number of people, when they see the cameras, recognize that they are precautionary and for shoppers’ and diners’ safety, saying the cameras are more likely to deter crime than deter business.
“For the safety of our community, I don’t think it impacts the ambiance or charm of Park Avenue,” he said.
When the legality of surveillance cameras has been brought to court, it has been ruled that the public has no expectation of privacy on the public street and sidewalk, so the silent surveillance recordings are legal.
Other communities on board
Though other local cities, such as Maitland, Oviedo and Winter Springs, do not currently utilize surveillance cameras, police captains from each department say if and when the cities further develop their downtown cores, they would consider installing them.
Winter Springs Chief of Police Kevin Brunelle said his department is currently in the infant stages of looking into grants to install surveillance cameras in the city.
“Technology-wise, it is the way of the future for us to be able to patrol more efficiently,” he said.
His department already uses dashboard cameras in 90 percent of its police cars, with surveillance cameras being the next step.
“Everybody speaks up about constitutional rights, but you don’t have the right to not be videotaped while breaking the law,” he said. “… You might say we’re playing Big Brother on the criminals but not on our law-abiding citizens.”