ST. PETERSBURG — Police will soon have a new tool to protect cyclists and joggers on a crime-ridden stretch of the Pinellas Trail: camera surveillance.
Up to 25 cameras are planned to be installed on the trail in the Child’s Park area by this fall in a pilot program that could be extended to other stretches of the trail. The move was prompted by a spate of robberies in February including one attack where a woman was pistol-whipped in the face causing her to lose several teeth.
The infra-red cameras will be dotted along a half-mile section of the former railroad between 43rd and 49th streets south, just north of Eighth Avenue South. The cost to the city is estimated at $100,000, but city officials say the cameras not only will deter muggers but also provide valuable footage to help police identify suspects.
“We’re confident that the cameras will deter crime,” said Evan Mory, city director of transportation and parking management. “In case they do not, we have another tool to apprehend any criminals that commit an act.”
But Pinellas County officials have declined a request to help with the costs of the cameras and are less sure whether monitoring such a small stretch of the 47-mile trail will curb crime.
“It may solve the problem but it may move it to another area,” said Paul Cozzie, county director of parks and conservation resources. “If the problem moves to another area, you’ll have to install cameras there. Pretty soon you have network of cameras and that will be very expensive.”
The gun-point robbery in February was one of three robberies on the trail within city limits that month, but there have been none since, police spokesman Mike Puetz said. Police records show 17 robberies on the trail were reported over the previous two years.
“There isn’t what I would call a predictable level of those types of incidents,” Cozzie said. “They seem to be crimes of opportunity.”
The cameras are unlikely to be monitored 24 hours a day, but police officers would be able to view camera footage from police headquarters and in patrol cars using from laptops and smart phones.
“The benefit is you have an image of a suspect you can release to the public and it can act as a deterrent if it’s posted there are cameras out there,” Puetz said.
The request to the county for funding was made to Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard by the Pinellas County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, a body of local elected officials that prioritizes transportation projects.
“A number of communities are interested in the surveillance cameras and are anxious to see the results of St. Petersburg’s pilot project,” St. Petersburg Council Member and MPO Vice Chairman Jim Kennedy wrote in the request.
Woodard denied the request, saying the county does not have spare funds and that it would create a precedent if the county contributed toward the cost of law enforcement within a city.
The city of Bradenton this year spent $60,000 installing 16 security cameras to police Riverwalk, a downtown area alongside the Manatee River that includes a playground and skate park.
The city since has expanded the program to 26 cameras, and footage led police to issue a few arrest warrants and to locate victims of car burglaries, Bradenton Police Sgt. Curtis Johnson said.
“Since the cameras have been up, those who were coming to do something other than skate, they don’t seem to be coming around so much,” Johnson said. “The homeless stay out of the area.”
Local elected officials including St. Petersburg City Council members Wengay Newton and Steve Kornell and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch traveled to Bradenton Monday to see the system firsthand.
“I’m in favor of a system like that going into place on the trail,” Kornell said. “I think they’ll help the police make arrests when people attack people. An arrest is a pretty good resolution.”