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Surveillance Network Near Tampa Public Housing Raises Concerns

Last week, the Housing Authority rolled out its latest security effort — six solar-powered surveillance cameras installed in and around the 35-acre Robles Park housing complex. Critics say the cameras are an invasion of privacy.

by Christopher O'Donnell, Tampa Bay Times / November 12, 2020
One of the six solar-powered surveillance cameras that have been installed around Robles Park Village. The cameras will be controlled and monitored by Pro-Vigil, a "live video surveillance company" that will call Tampa police to respond quickly to any crimes they spot. TNS

(TNS) — A bag of trash in hand, Vass Clark walked to a community dumpster in Robles Park Village on Tuesday morning.

For most of the short trip, he was under the gaze of a new video surveillance camera stationed on the corner of his street.

“They’re using it to scrutinize the activities here,” he said when asked about the device. “It’s stereotyping people."

The safety of residents has long been a problem at Robles Park, the oldest of Tampa’s traditional public housing complexes. That’s despite policies that have included bans on loitering and visitor parking, the hiring of a private security firm and the eviction of residents arrested for drug dealing or gang activities.

Last week, the Housing Authority rolled out is the latest security effort — six solar-powered surveillance cameras installed in and around the 35-acre housing complex.

The cameras will be controlled and monitored by Pro-Vigil, a “live video surveillance company,” which will call Tampa police to respond quickly to any crimes they spot. The authority is paying roughly $3,500 a month to the San Antonio, Texas, company, whose surveillance cameras are more frequently used at construction sites and by businesses.

The cameras can provide high-resolution images, including car license plates, said Lorenzo Bryant, Housing Authority director of asset management. He said they are not pointed at people’s homes, but are aimed at common areas.

“We’ve put them in what we call high-traffic areas where we have the most potential for catching people coming in and leaving and certain high-traffic areas where people do more hanging out,” he said.

The Tampa Police Department made a first request for video footage after a shooting incident Monday night, Bryant said. Just after 10 p.m., officers heard two volleys of gunshots, according to a police report. They found a male in his mid-40s with a gunshot wound to his leg.

About 30 minutes after the shooting, a second gunshot victim walked into the St. Joseph’s Hospital emergency room. The person declined to cooperate with investigators about how he was injured and left the hospital after treatment.

Pro-Vigil markets itself to businesses such as car dealerships and construction firms concerned about overnight thefts and vandalism. Its website states that it uses artificial intelligence to analyze camera images and detect criminal behavior. Footage is reviewed by employees before law enforcement is called, Bryant said.

The contract with the Housing Authority requires the firm to replace or repair damaged cameras within five days.

The cameras have the support of the Robles Park Resident Council, said its president Reva Iman. She said families with young children have repeatedly called for the Housing Authority to crack down on violent crime and drive-by shootings.

“They don’t want to listen to the residents, and they feel they have all the answers,” she said.

About two weeks ago, she saw yellow tape, a bloody shirt and a crime scene truck, the aftermath of an attack in which a resident was hit with a brick, she said.

“It’s things like that that makes me in favor,” she said.

Robles Park is considered one of Tampa’s oldest, poorest and most rundown public housing complexes. Its apartments were built without central air-conditioning, so residents rely on window units.

The Housing Authority has begun community discussions about its eventual redevelopment of Robles. Property Markets Group and Baker Barrios Architects have been designated as master planners for the project that will include a memorial for Zion Cemetery, a segregation-era graveyard for Black people that was built over by developers.

The Housing Authority has relocated most of the 97 residents whose homes are directly over the cemetery. Those homes are boarded up.

After 30 years of living at Robles, Rachel Reeves, 47, is skeptical that cameras will stop the crime she often sees from her stoop. But she doesn’t understand why people are concerned that their right to privacy is being violated.

“It ain’t a violation because I ain’t doing nothing,” she said. “My privacy is in my house.”

East Tampa community activist Connie Burton, a frequent critic of the Housing Authority, said the cameras are another indignity forced upon the housing complex where her mother and sister live. Instead of surveillance, she would rather see the money spent on programs that improve the lives and opportunities of Robles residents.

“We’ve had all kinds of programs initiated to contain the community,” she said. “That’s what we get from Black leadership — a crackdown on keeping you under surveillance as if you’re in some kind of authoritarian country.”

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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