OCEAN CITY — Questions about the correlation between an expanded City Watch surveillance camera network and the need for more boots on the ground police officers were answered this week.
During Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting, a review of the expansion of the City Watch surveillance camera system juxtaposed with the ongoing effort to bolster Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) with more full-time and seasonal police officers and public safety aides (PSAs). Each were topics of discussion during last month’s Police Commission meeting and were reviewed again by the Mayor and Council on Monday.
The topics are mutually exclusive, but the issue of whether more of one aspect required less of the other was raised. The OCPD will be at its full complement of 112 full-time officers with nine candidates in the current academy class and five more expected to be added to the July academy class.
Seasonal officer recruitment is strong with 144 applicants as of mid-January although the final number is a bit of a moving target. Of the 144 seasonal officer candidates, 52 failed their pre-testing and 17 have received conditional offers with another 53 still in the application process. In terms of PSAs, there have been 52 applicants, of which six have failed pre-tests and four have received conditional offers.
Also reviewed by the Mayor and Council on Monday was the ongoing expansion of the City Watch video surveillance network. The project began in 2014 and now includes camera locations along the entire Boardwalk. The next phase, which is underway, will include the Baltimore Avenue corridor. Last year, the town secured a $66,000 grant from the state for the next phase and the goal is to have seven new surveillance cameras installed along the corridor by the start of the summer season.
Again, while not directly related, the issues of filling out the ranks of full-time and seasonal officers along with PSAs and expanding the City Watch system led to an interesting debate. While advocating for both initiatives, Councilman John Gehrig raised the question if more cameras were installed, thereby improving the department’s efficiency, would as many seasonal officers and PSAs be needed.
“The purpose of the cameras is to make us more productive,” he said. “If it doesn’t make us more productive, then we don’t need to spend the money. That’s the story of technology.”
OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro said the City Watch system expansion has and will be an invaluable tool and resource for the department.
“They are extra eyes in the sky,” he said. “Cameras never get sick and they don’t take a day off. It’s just a win-win. We’ve had a number of success stories, and it’s been proven more is better.”
Buzzuro said expanding the City Watch system to include Baltimore Avenue was the next logical step in the process. He also pointed out the importance of getting video surveillance at the key entry points to town.
“The Boardwalk is already covered,” he said. “The next area is Baltimore Avenue. We also think it’s important to cover the entry and exit points to town. We’ve had situations where we wished we had more.”
In terms of the debate whether an expanded City Watch system could ease the strain on recruiting and hiring more officers, Buzzuro said the need for boots on the ground would always surpass the benefits of a wider surveillance net.
“It’s a resource and another tool,” he said. “It will always be people first. This is not a replacement or a substitute for having personnel.”
The chief said the need to fill out the ranks of seasonal officers and PSAs is paramount heading into a new season and the expansion of City Watch will only make how the new officers are deployed easier.
“It makes us safer,” he said. “It allows us to be strategic in where we direct our personnel. There is no replacing the people element. It’s just another tool and a resource.”
City Watch allows command staff to deploy officers in real time situations, but also has proven to be effective in investigating crimes after they have occurred and ultimately gaining convictions for suspects by securing court-admissible evidence, said City Manager Doug Miller.
“It helps with investigations after a crime is committed,” he said. “It provides a tool to identify suspects and get convictions when they get to court.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said he has seen the effectiveness of an expanded City Watch system first-hand during times of significant criminal activity.
“It allows us to optimize our resources,” he said. “I’ve been up there and watched the command staff manage incidents and allocate resources using the cameras. I watched them using it during H2Oi and the incidents in June.”
The council voted 6-0 with Councilman Lloyd Martin to move ahead with the City Watch surveillance camera expansion to Baltimore Avenue.