Miami Beach Wants Millions for Police Cameras "on Every Corner" in South Beach

Miami Beach Wants Millions for Police Cameras "on Every Corner" in South Beach
City of Miami Beach
Miami Beach promotes itself as a haven for progressives, LGBTQ people, and open-minded folks from all over the globe, yet in its recent push to crack down on crime, the city has alarmed civil liberties groups. The city and police department have recently praised the local group Crime Prevention and Awareness, a collection of vigilantes fighting to increase bond amounts for criminals.

Now Miami Beach is proposing yet another expensive upgrade to its arsenal of anti-crime tools, one that might again upset civil liberties activists. The city has put together a plan to install police cameras "on every corner" in South Beach's heavily traveled tourist area stretching from Washington Avenue east to the ocean. A letter from City Manager Jimmy Morales this week estimates the cost at $8 million over the next five years.

That figure includes extra money for new police license-plate readers, which are a far more controversial tool than standard surveillance cameras. A draft of the plan from 2017 called for 62 new cameras across town at a cost of $5,000 to $6,000 each. That figure doesn't include the additional infrastructure upgrades that will be necessary to maintain the cameras and transmit footage to police across town.

"This plan will encompass cameras throughout the remainder of the Entertainment District, the  Beachwalk/Boardwalk from 17th Street to 87th Terrace, the 41 Street Business District, the North Beach / 71  Street Business District, the Alton Road Business District, and areas surrounding the Convention Center," Morales writes in the letter. "The vision also includes further deployment of [plate readers] throughout the city in order to maximize coverage."

At this point in 2018, it's basically a given that the world's major tourist hot spots are awash in police cameras — law-enforcement officials in both New York City and London oversee surveillance networks that include thousands upon thousands of cameras. Even many progressive activists say the cameras are necessary, but groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation warn that policies governing the safe storage, use, and sharing of video data need to be both explicitly written and strongly enforced in order to prevent the surveillance of political dissidents or privacy invasions by rogue, camera-armed cops. (In Miami Beach, a city heavy on half-nude people and light on political activists, that concern seems worth exploring.)

Morales writes there are 36 stationary cameras throughout the city — 16 watch over the Ocean Drive/Lummus Park area, and 20 keep tabs on traffic elsewhere. (In a 2017 memo, Morales wrote there are 42 cameras across town.)

"In February 2017, Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez requested that the administration explore the possibility of adding additional cameras along the Beachwalk and on every corner of the Entertainment District," Morales writes. "Following a cost analysis by staff, it was determined that the camera-on-every-corner project should best be broken down into three phases: 1) Ocean Drive/ Lummus Park and Beachwalk to 17th Street; 2) Collins Ave; and 3) Washington Ave."

Here's last year's proposed map of the additional cameras:
click to enlarge CITY OF MIAMI BEACH
City of Miami Beach
But the call for additional license-plate readers (LPRs) will cause privacy advocates the most consternation. Cops love the technology because readers can be mounted either on stationary points or on the outside of police cruisers and instantaneously suck up data on everyone traveling through an area. Miami Beach's plate-reading network conducted at least 11.3 million scans in 2016, but that number is likely much higher, because Miami Beach PD in 2017 provided New Times with only a partial LPR-scanning dataset. Police Chief Dan Oates told WSVN last year that he wants the Florida Legislature to pass a bill allowing police to install readers on state roads, which include the causeways into and out of Miami Beach.

Though police departments maintain that plate readers are extremely useful to find and track criminal suspects, there are already signs that the technology can be put to nefarious use. In January, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inked a contract to access plate-reader data from Vigilant Solutions, the largest government contractor supplying plate-reading tech to law enforcement agencies.

Morales writes that MBPD operates ten patrol cars with plate readers mounted on the trunk, as well as four fixed, stationary scanning stations. Five more stations are expected to come online in the next 90 days. Other Miami-area police agencies also love surveillance tech: Doral built a huge plate-scanning network last year, and Miami-Dade Police tried to fly a semipermanent, camera-armed spy plane over wide swaths of the county before New Times broke news of that plan and MDPD backed off.

"The Police Department now routinely relies on this technology to assist with traffic mitigation, crowd control, and crime prevention," Morales wrote. "In addition, the cameras have assisted detectives in nearly every major criminal investigation occurring within the Entertainment District in the past three years. In short, the Police Department considers this technology — and its expansion — a top priority for public safety."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.