Imperial Beach, CA, Gets Department of Homeland Security Video Surveillance Grant

A Department of Homeland Security funded camera system is intended to enhance safety and security along the Imperial Beach, California shoreline. Imperial Beach is a U.S.-Mexico border town with a border fence at the beach out to the ocean forming the U.S.-Mexico border.

The zoom and infrared cameras cameras will be placed at the main lifeguard tower on Evergreen Avenue, on the pier and on lamp posts at the south end of Seacoast Drive and at the end of Palm Avenue near The Spirit of Imperial Beach.

The cameras will be able to see a distance of three miles, will operate 24 hours a day, and record up to 30 days of footage.

Despite potential privacy concerns, city council voted unanimously to approve a resolution Wednesday to accept a $125,000 federal grant to purchase, install, and maintain a surveillance system for the next three years.

“My expectation is there will not be abuse,” said Public Safety Department Director Tom Clark. Video monitoring software can be used to “stop the range of motion before it even gets close to the house.”

Clark said the city will look to purchase a camera system and monitoring software that will limit the cameras’ ability to see into homes or backyards.

“If they can’t do that then we’re going to restrict it to just the water area and not do it at all to the east so that it won’t look at backyards, so that it’s only going to look and point right down at the end of the Boca Rios and not into the homes there,” Clark said.

The issue was originally part of the agenda consent calendar, meaning it would be approved with no discussion.

Spriggs said overall he supports the camera system but requested the issue be removed from the consent calendar so a discussion could take place and to force city council “to take responsibility for addressing all those considerations and concerns rather than leaving it on consent and have people speculate that we’re trying to pass something through without any public scrutiny.”

Imperial Beach Councilman Ed Spriggs lives on Seacoast Drive and is a member of the Seacoasters, a group of local residents and business owners who seek improvements for the beachfront street.

Beyond software to limit the cameras’ movement, checks will be in place to prevent misuse, Clark said.

City supervisors will be able to monitor footage and camera movement live and camera footage will be recorded to allow supervisors to periodically monitor or go back to review, he said.

Lifeguards will use the cameras during regular business hours. The U.S. Border Patrol, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, and California Department of Fish and Game will be allowed access to the surveillance system in the lifeguard tower after hours.

Robert Stabenow, Lifeguard Captain at City of Imperial Beach, Clark, and the sheriff’s department will be able to access video from the cameras without the need to be in the main lifeguard tower. Others with access to the camera system, including U.S. Border Patrol, will have to physically enter the lifeguard station to use the cameras.

The federal government may be able to gain remote access in the future, Stabenow said. All cameras placed on the border by the federal government, like ones on a pole in Border Field State Park, are monitored via remote access, said Ralph Desio with U.S. Border Patrol.

In addition to monitoring the area for illegal activity near the border, the cameras will make the Imperial Beach shoreline a safer place to be, Clark said, particularly when fog, glare of the sun, or nightfall restrict what can be seen with a pair of binoculars for the lifeguards.

“I’ve worked up in that pier tower hundreds of hours and it’s like the air traffic controller of an airport,” said Councilman Bobby Patton, who was an Imperial Beach lifeguard for more than two decades before joining city council last year. “You’re directing people to make rescues but there’s a lot of blind spots on our beach.”

Beachgoers and people who illegally enter U.S. waters from Mexico alike will be easier to see to take into custody or rescue.

“These are going to be tools that not only save someone’s lives, regardless of where they’re coming from, but also are part of our enforcement and border security,” Clark said.

A camera at the end of Palm Avenue to monitor beach activity has been out of use for a year due to an outdated software system, Clark said.

The process to find a particular camera system which will be paid for entirely by the federal government must begin by April 2014, Clark said. Once a system is identified, cameras can be installed and in use within a few months.