The Franklin County sheriff’s office will soon be getting eight to 10 automated license plate readers, scattered throughout the county, to better identify criminal activity.
Following a report by Capt. James Hamm, county commissioners voted 4-1 to approve finding funding in this fiscal year to cover the pro-rated cost of leasing up to 10 cameras, at $2,500 per camera per year. Commission Chairman Ricky Jones voted now, after raising questions as to whether the request would be better handled during the upcoming summer budget deliberations for fiscal year 2022-23.
Hamm said the cameras, which would be mounted in stationary positions at strategic points in the county, would be used to identify anything from missing or endangered children, to fleeing suspects, to wanted persons, but would not be used as a source for issuing traffic tickets.
“They’re not going to be used for writing tickets,” he said. “They could be used for that but won’t be used for that right now.”
He noted they can’t be used to clock speeders, although some cameras can determine if a vehicle is traveling over 100 mph, and others whether a vehicle is exceeding up to 160 mph. “They won’t give you a speed,” Hamm said.
Hamm outlined a scenario in the county where there have been armed robberies on St. George Island, and thefts at Apalachicola marinas of a quarter-million dollars.
“To say these devices will be a help is an understatement,” Hamm said. “They could potentially save countless lives in the future.
“They would help with people coming into our community, coming in to steal,” he said, outlining a process where data, time and location is fed into a central data bank that can be viewed exclusively by law enforcement for help in locating suspects.
“Maybe somebody has seen a van that’s been through that area,” Hamm said. “We can go in the archive and identify that van or vehicle or any kind of pedestrian, or bicycle.”
He told of how an Eastpoint man who had stolen his wife’s car was photographed in Lake City, and within 30 minutes law enforcement had detained the subject, who had mental health issues.
“So he wouldn’t harm himself,” Hamm said. “If we have someone go missing, we can locate that subject pretty quickly if they are in some kind of vehicle.”
He said the data is stored for 30 days. “It is not sold to anyone, to any other business,” Hamm said. “It is for us and us only.”
He said one such camera is already in use in the county on North Bayshore Drive. “But it’s not the sheriff’s office, it’s the private community,” Hamm said. “If you pass their subdivision, they are catching your tag.”
Hamm said the sheriff’s office also has used an $8,000 grant to purchase a Motorola Solution camera, “not much bigger than an iPhone,” which can be put up on poles and trees at hot spots, mainly where there has been heavy drug activity.
“To see who may be visiting that doesn’t need to be there,” he said. He noted that it has been used to monitor parking issues in Alligator Point.
“We do have one by the park entrance as we do have thefts at Alligator Point,” Hamm said.
He said the cameras will not be mounted on department vehicles, since at $12,000 each, and with more than 30 vehicles, the cost would be prohibitive.
Hamm said the department has tested a Vigilant Solutions camera on St. George Island and was able to get more than a half-dozen hits on stolen vehicles.
“The information is out there and when we get a hit, we input it into a hot list,” he said.
Hamm said that such cameras are in use in both Bay and Gulf counties, and that Liberty County is looking into deploying them.
“Liberty county is waiting to see what we do,” he said. “We share the same criminals.
“Catalytic converters are a big thing right now, and they have to go somewhere to sell them,” he said. “We share the same people. They’re waiting to see what system we go with.”
Jones stressed that such cameras would be a recurring budget item, since it would make sense to continue their lease on an ongoing basis.
Commissioner Noah Lockley, who made the motion which was seconded by Bert Boldt, argued that the money be found as soon as possible.
“It’s our job at the county commision to do public safety and this is a good thing for public safety,” Lockley said. “You can’t wait until next year to save somebody’s life. I think we ought to dig down and find the $25,000.”
Boldt said they were needed as well, given the changing landscape of movement in and out of the county. “It preserves manpower,” he said. “It does a lot of work with a limited sheriff’s staff and is another complement and amendment to the existing sheriff’s staff.
“Our county is 70 miles long, and some of the issues are profound,” Boldt said. “I like the idea of having one at Alligator Point.”