Surf’s up at Edisto Beach, and police cameras will be too

Edisto Beach Police Chief Bill Coffey has received Town Council approval for traffic-monitoring video cameras that will be used to help fight crime. Buy this photo

— An idyllic, picture-postcard view from the Pier Pressure Lounge presents a soothing horizon where sky meets sea.

Here’s what they’re getting

The planned surveillance system comprises:

Two wireless pan, tilt and zoom digital cameras.

Four fixed-position, wireless, long-range infrared cameras.

Two stationary automatic license plate recognition cameras.

High-quality video 24 hours a day.

New wireless infrastructure that allows for the possibility of a community-wide wireless camera network.

On the street, a parade of people stroll, bike and shop. A spring break crowd fills a sandwich shop. At Town Hall, the mayor’s dog greets visitors.

Come summer, this Norman Rockwell world of sand, whitecaps and seagulls could have a different flavor. High-tech police cameras, including license-plate scanners, are planned as a crime-fighting tool for the only road to the beach.

Some opponents say it means Big Brother will be watching them.

A majority of Town Council supports Police Chief Bill Coffey’s video monitoring of S.C. Highway 174 and Bay Creek Park. In a 4-1 vote, council authorized $60,000 in accommodations-tax revenue for eight 24-hour cameras.

Jane Darby, the lone dissenting council vote, questions whether the expense of big-city police cameras outweighs their benefit.

“I just frankly did not see the need for it,” she said.

Darby wonders how long the digital video images will be archived and who will monitor their use. She expressed concern about keeping the system running in a harsh beach environment.

“I just think we’re probably going to get some pushback from people who live here,” she said.

Resistance has already begun.

Charles Rozyczko of North Charleston, who owns property at Edisto, fumed about the new system.

“Would you like to have a camera click your picture when you are coming and going?” he said.

In addition to the pan, tilt and zoom cameras, license-plate scanners will record vehicle tag numbers and transmit the information to the State Law Enforcement Division.

Privacy concerns


Opponents, such as resident Jimmy King, said that accommodations-tax revenue is designated for efforts to draw tourists, to put “heads in beds.” King, editor of the monthly Edisto News, said crime is a minor problem on the island.

“Why do we need this? We had 18 burglaries last year,” he said.

Town Administrator Iris Hill said the law allows for the use of accommodations-tax funds to promote public safety. The police cameras will build on Edisto’s reputation as a secure, family-friendly beach, she said.

Civil liberties experts said there are issues with the proposal.

“The cost raises questions. Is this the best use of tax money? It can be an invasion of privacy,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

Some municipalities have backed off from using surveillance cameras because of privacy concerns. And questions have arisen about how long the information is stored and who has access to it, she said.

The beach, with seven full-time police officers, has about 400 residents in the offseason. The population swells to near 20,000 during summer.

Coffey said the technology is a “force multiplier” that is economical and effective. “We think it’s another good tool for us to be able to combat crime,” he said.

The police department devotes a lot of time to protecting the 2,500 housing units on the beach. It can be difficult to develop a suspect when a break-in occurs, he said.

“We believe most of the people involved in criminal activity don’t live here,” Coffey said.

The cameras could provide valuable crime-solving information in such circumstances, he said, adding that the license-plate scanners can alert police to the presence of someone at the beach with outstanding warrants.

“We just think it could be effective in helping us do our job in a better way,” he said.

Watching out


The city of Charleston uses a video monitoring system based on the same sort of technology. More than 40 cameras keep tabs on areas such as the Port of Charleston, The Market and East Side housing, such as Gadsden Green, said Deputy Police Chief Tony Elder.

“We’re not trying to watch you. We’re trying to watch out for you,” Elder said.

The federally funded cameras are valuable tools for crime-fighting, crowd management and flood response, he said, and they can be used to search for a missing person.

Mount Pleasant and North Charleston officials said those cities do not use surveillance cameras. North Charleston has four automated license-plate-reader systems scattered throughout the city to detect stolen license plates, said police spokesman Spencer Pryor.

Isle of Palms police have surveillance cameras at the Recreation Center. Four cameras on the front beach are currently not working. Chief Thomas Buckhannon has asked the city for funds to replace them. Video can be a useful tool in solving a crime, he said. In one instance, thieves were caught on camera stealing tires, he said.

Coffey said the Edisto surveillance cameras will be in public places and record images that an officer would see if he were standing there. The video data gathered will be for police business such as solving a crime or looking for a missing person.

“If we don’t have the need to use it, we’re not going to view it,” he said.

The new Edisto Beach camera system is expected to be operational by early to mid-summer, he said.

“I think it’s a great idea. They got cameras everywhere else,” said Eddie Jackson, an Edisto house painter from Ravenel.

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