Thursday, June 13, 2024

WPD asks for access to downtown business owners’ cameras to help solve crimes

Law enforcement is recruiting the assistance of downtown business owners, asking for access to their camera footage to better solve crimes. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — In the wake of a shooting downtown in mid-October local law enforcement is enlisting the assistance of business owners to help with investigations and public safety.

READ MORE: ‘It was chaos’: Downtown shooting leaves one injured, others hiding for safety

ALSO: ‘Community’s asking for it’: City ordinance floated as way to combat homelessness downtown

Wilmington Downtown Inc. and Wilmington Police Department hosted a collaborative meeting Wednesday to discuss initiatives and strategies with downtown businesses. The department is asking to be an authorized user of businesses’ personal cameras, to access footage as needed, instead of having to wait for permission.

The request comes after two shootings took place in the central business district of downtown within two months of each other.

The first happened Aug. 26 outside of a bar at Princess and Water streets, leaving one teenager shot, who recovered. The perpetrator got away; WPD spokesperson Brandon Shope could not immediately answer if an arrest had been made in the case. 

The second shooting happened Oct. 15 and is suspected to have been mobile with one man, who has since recovered, found injured on Princess Street. One arrest has been made in the case

“I’ve called this meeting out of deep concern for our district,” WDI vice president Christina Haley told a crowd of roughly 25 or so business owners. 

She said she has been working with the Downtown Task Force — comprising Wilmington Police Department officers and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies — over the past few months to address violent crimes.

“Recent events, like the shooting a few weeks ago, highlight the urgency of our discussions today,” she said. “It’s also crucial that we acknowledge that the violence often strikes without warning. Those engaging in such activities often show no regard for their own lives, let alone the lives of our community members. And they hold no regard to where their bullets fly.”

The October shooting happened at 2:15 a.m., with shots fired in multiple locations downtown. According to 911 calls, a car was struck on Second near Princess Street, and police investigated shot windows at the Hannah Block USO/Community Arts Center a few blocks away. Shope said “to the best of their knowledge” these instances were all related.

WPD confirmed there was a gang nexus with the crime and Lt. Jason Nichols told the crowd Wednesday there were 15 officers downtown when the shooting occurred. 

“It was a mass exodus of people at a time and at the time we couldn’t pinpoint where it was actually coming to,” he said.

Port City Daily asked if more officers arrived at the scene after the shooting.

“As with every critical incident, an appropriate number of officers responded to ensure that those in the area were safe,” Shope said, but referred the news outlet to submit a 911 records request for an exact count.

Ten days after the October shooting, WPD arrested 18-year-old Tristian Allen in connection with the incident. He’s being charged with attempted first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, felony carrying a concealed weapon and going armed to the terror of the public.

Nichols said the arrest was possible with the assistance of video footage. Calvin Barnes, officer within WPD’s Situational Tactics and Intelligence Nexus Group (STING), “a real-time crime center,” said if he had immediate access to footage during the October shooting, he could have more quickly tracked how the incident unfolded.

Barnes revealed a second suspect is being sought by WPD, based on camera footage.

Wednesday, WPD passed out copies of an existing memorandum of understanding between the department and property owners for review. It states a property owner “agrees to allow WPD to have direct access to camera feeds for purposes of reviewing real-time video, or saving video footage, for any evidence of criminal activity.” It further states this would be at no charge to WPD but also allows the department to archive footage as evidence.

The STING Center already has an agreement with around six to 10 businesses to access their personal cameras to identify suspects in crimes, according to Lt. Greg Willett, spokesperson for WPD. The MOU has been in place since 2017.

Oftentimes, it can take days to obtain permission and access to local business’ private camera feeds, according to Barnes. 

“Things would happen in a much quicker pace if we had immediate access or direct access,” he told business owners.

There are dead spots around downtown that city-installed cameras do not record. 

WPD currently has cameras installed in the vicinity that predate the STING Center; some are located at the corner of Front and Grace streets, Second and Market and Third and Market, for example. Willett couldn’t give PCD an exact number installed in the downtown area by press (the story will be updated upon response). 

WPD also deploys mobile cameras when needed in the aftermath of suspected criminal activity. Shope said WPD would respond next week whether mobile cameras were used following the October shooting.

While Barnes confirmed the STING team cannot monitor the “hundreds of feeds” live 24/7, if a ShotSpotter activation or call comes in specifying a location, officers can focus their attention on particular footage near the area.

“Having reviewable access to the footage is what’s key,” Barnes said. “Because there’s a 99% chance we’re not going to see it unfold live.”

Allowing WPD access to the cameras would remove the owner from a chain of custody, so they wouldn’t have to physically hand over the tape. While some business owners seemed in support of the idea, others were hesitant about the language in the MOU not specifying “external” camera feeds only.

Hayley Jensen, owner of Beer Barrio, hesitated allowing access if it meant internal footage, especially if it included audio. She said she didn’t know if people were “talking about buying weed,” for example, and didn’t want to get them in trouble.

Joe Apkarian, owner of Eagle’s Dare, Pour House and Taco Baby, also spoke out.

“The way it reads right now, you have the ability, one part where you say ‘exterior area,’ but then you say ‘access to look for any evidence of criminal activity,’” Apkarian said. “That’s a pretty big red flag.”

Barnes said the department is primarily concerned with exterior views, noting Eagle’s Dare at the corner of Third and Red Cross streets is a prime spot the department wants to have eyes on.

“Even on your end, if you want it to be fail safe, foolproof, you check your cameras, if you have that ability in your system, just give me exterior, don’t even give me access to interior,” Barnes replied.

Front Street Brewery owner Tom Harris was on board; as an owner of the brewery for 17 years, he said WPD has used his footage in the past. Harris told Port City Daily his business has a comprehensive camera system with continuous coverage of the three surrounding alleys and sidewalks that would be useful to law enforcement. 

He asked if WPD would review owners’ camera technology and make any necessary upgrade recommendations. Harris’ general manager is meeting with Barnes to discuss the best placement and if there is anything additional to install that would be beneficial.

Slice of Life owner Ray Worrell inquired at the meeting about WPD installing police department cameras on property owners’ businesses. Jensen told officers she would be in favor of having the department install cameras at Beer Barrio. Jeff Duckworth, owner of PinPoint, told Port City Daily Friday he would also support this.

Barnes said it’s been discussed in the past but he’s not sure where things stand now.

“I’ll push it up again and see if we can make that work,” he said. 

Barnes acknowledged the expense involved — either for small business owners or from the WPD budget — as the largest impediment. WPD would not answer how much it costs to install one camera and told PCD to submit a public records request.

Haley said at the meeting she plans to approach the Municipal Services District Advisory Committee — made up of business owners and downtown residents — about a grant program to offset costs of installing or upgrading equipment.

“I know that it can be expensive,” she said. “But this is really something that can help us better secure our city.”

After the October shooting — coupled with an increase in incidents — WPD Captain Musacchio said he was tasked with creating a plan to combat violent crimes downtown. Officers downtown, from Fifth Street to the Cape Fear River and from the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to the Isabel Holmes Bridge, doled out 110 charges in August. The number rose to 148 in September and 128 in October. Arrests or incidents ranged from DWIs, trespassing, drugs, and guns.

Apkarian expressed police presence boomed after the October shooting, to which Musacchio said was because of his downtown plan.

“Part of the plan was to use STING Center intelligence information to identify violent criminals downtown,” he said, adding more officers are deployed downtown as bars close at 2 a.m. “We use our MFF, which is our mobile field force, and our housing units to bring more officers downtown to place them on foot and in vehicles.”

Musacchio confirmed the increased patrols won’t sustain long-term due to staffing but he plans to keep it up as long as possible.

In July, WPD said it has lost between 40 and 50 officers since 2020 and District Attorney Ben David said at a press conference the department is operating at a 12% vacancy rate. WPD would not provide updated numbers to PCD about where the department stands now, citing it would be accessible via a public records request.

Apkarian mentioned there seemed to be more officers mounted or in vehicles than on foot. 

“You’ve got underagers loitering in front of Crazy Mike’s, like 17-year-olds,” Apkarian said and asked WPD to increase its foot presence. “Why can’t [you] go up and be like, ‘Hey guys. I can’t tell you to leave, but I’m going to hang out right here.’”

Tara Fitzpatrick, who lives next to Front Street Brewery and manages Apkarian’s restaurants, said she often sees officers congregating in groups, as opposed to walking around and checking on businesses.

Musacchio acknowledged the issue and said he’s informed officers on shift they need to be patrolling in groups of no more than two to three and interacting with the community.

Apkarian’s other concern with downtown police presence was the lack of communication. He suggested staying in closer contact with service industry professionals who work downtown to offer information, something he said isn’t being utilized fully.

He used an example of a non-emergent call made from Eagle’s Dare a few weeks ago and four cruisers showed up, but no one asked to speak to him as the owner nor the person who made the call.

“Not engaging, like boots on the ground. Control your village; know the players,” Apkarian told WPD.

He indicated he’d appreciate personal communication with an officer downtown rather than just calling 911 or the non-emergency police number.

“I think there’s a higher conversation to be had in terms of enforcement and interaction with the downtown population,” Apkarian said. 

Musacchio said officers can engage more: “That’s more of a community policing issue, which we can look into.”

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