Neighborhood's Surveillance Cameras Controversy

A St. Petersburg, Florida, residential community is getting a lesson in proper disclosure and where you can hang signs in their city.

The Lakeswood Estates Civic Association purchased its own surveillance cameras, hid them in trees pointed at key intersections, and posted signs telling would-be criminals they were being watched.

“We don’t want to catch them breaking into our house. We want to stop them from breaking into our homes, we want to send a message that says don’t come into Lakewood, don’t prey on us, we’re watching,” civic association president Judy Ellis explained.

However, the signs were illegal. “The city came flying in and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get those out of here,’ ” Ellis recalled. Notice it was the signs they needed to remove, not the cameras.

After a year and a half of dealing with the community association, the St. Petersburg City Council will consider changing the city’s sign ordinance to allow video surveillance warnings that would be posted below crime watch signs.

Assistant city attorney Mark Winn said the language was carefully crafted to minimize legal exposures to the city.

“You don’t want to make people feel so secure that they don’t take normal safety precautions,” Winn explained. “It says private, not the city video surveillance, and it says it may be under video surveillance, not that it is under video surveillance.”

He added that Lakewood Estates’ own signs were out of bounds because they were posted on the public right of way, not on private property. The Association was attempting to make the entire surveillance system a known entity and then ran afoul of the law by hanging their own signs on public (city) poles.

The ordinance also suggests neighborhood associations will have to pay for the video surveillance signs. The city has a limited amount of money for the signs, which is expected to be quickly consumed.

City council members have said other neighborhood associations either have cameras or want cameras and understand the warning signs are an important part to a properly implemented video surveillance solution.