Community leaders in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood are quickly moving forward with a plan to expand a newly unveiled neighborhood-wide surveillance system over the next few years, turning it into an example for the rest of the city.
“Our goal is to implement the first smart neighborhood within the city of Miami,” said Manny Gonzalez, the executive director of the Wynwood Business Improvement District, or BID, a board of the city of Miami that is funded by local property owners.
A key part of that goal is to be able to track the license plates of every single vehicle that comes into the 50-block neighborhood, in an effort to either prevent crime or to quickly investigate crimes when they happen. In addition to that, a full fleet of CCTV cameras will help keep eyes on every block in the neighborhood.
A surveillance system with 48 live-feed CCTV cameras and two license plate readers was purchased by the BID for $181,000 last December and formally donated to the city. The Miami City Commission agreed in July to let the police department pitch in about $18,000 in funds to help maintain the surveillance network over the next two years. Since then, the BID has already approved $118,000 in additional funds for new cameras for the next fiscal year, which starts in October.
"It will allow our cameras to go from 48 to 80. And then the next fiscal year, we intend on doing the same. And at that point we think that we'll have every area sealed off and we'll be able to know what is happening within the district at any given time," said Gonzalez.
The first phase of the project should be operational by October.
“Halloween is very extreme here in Wynwood and I know that the cops would love to have it,” Gonzalez said, listing events that draw crowds to the neighborhood. “Shortly after that comes Art Basel, and shortly after that comes Super Bowl.”
Some South Florida cities like Fort Lauderdale, Doral, Coral Gables and Miami Beach have been using license plate reader technology for years, though they haven't been used with the density of the planned Wynwood system. Even the Coconut Grove Business Improvement District -- representing a different Miami neighborhood -- quietly approved the use of thirteen cameras with license plate reading technology in 2013, when Gonzalez was the executive director there.
"The mistake I made then was not beaming it directly to the City of Miami Police Department," he said. Rather, police would have to request access from the BID office when they wanted to investigate a crime. In Wynwood, the system will be set up differently. "This one is going to have best of both worlds. Instant access at the BID, but since it's primarily going to be their material, it's going to go to the police headquarters," said Gonzalez.
David Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights watchdog group, questioned what a business-led and funded group like the Wynwood Business Improvement District might do with data gathered from the license plate readers in particular. "I'm interested to know if it can be used for commercial purposes, if business districts can keep track of where you parked and where you shopped and sell that or use that to market to you," said Maass.
In response to those concerns, the Wynwood BID told WLRN that the only focus of the system is for public safety. "Currently, the system is in the early stages of design and there may be a live feed that goes to the Wynwood BID office as police officers use the BID office as a HUB from time to time. The Miami Police Department will be managing the security system including handling any public requests for camera footage and/or license plate information," the BID said in a statement.
There are some natural conditions that make it easier to examine traffic flowing into Wynwood, as compared to other neighborhoods. On one side of Wynwood is the barrier of Interstate 95. On the other is the Florida East Coast railroad track, which cuts off most vehicular traffic from the east. Only about a dozen streets lead into area. The BID only plans to track the limits of its boundaries, roughly between North Miami Avenue and NW 5th Avenue, and NW 29th and NW 20th streets.
The first two license plate readers will be placed southbound on NW 29th Street and North Miami Avenue, according to public documents. Other live feed cameras will be placed throughout the neighborhood. Eventually the plan is to have more than one camera per block.
The BID approved the first purchase of camera systems in November of 2018, with a unanimous vote. The vote was taken after business owners expressed concern that property crimes have increased in Wynwood over the last few years when it comes to things like cars getting broken into and petty thefts.
"It’s an off duty officer that doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat. He’s awake at all times," said Gonzalez. “We think that we’re setting a good example and we’re gonna set precedent for other neighborhoods."