Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner, right, discusses the pros and cons of installing government security cameras downtown as city recorder Randy Sanders looks on.

City board to study effectiveness of security cameras in other West Virginia downtowns, notes low crime rate in Buckhannon

BUCKHANNON – The Consolidated Public Works Board decided to observe how effective installing cameras on Main Street might be by observing Elkins and their potential new grant-funded security cameras.

The board held a conversation about installing cameras on Main Street after Dairy Queen was broken into on July 20, which they noted was the first commercial break-in downtown in many years.

City council member Dave McCauley kicked off the conversation during the last council meeting, following Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory’s report about the incident at Dairy Queen. More information about that meeting can be found in a previous My Buckhannon article here.

“I know this board has heard this discussion before, from BURMA,” Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner told members of the Consolidated Public Works Board. “Matt and I have talked about this since that meeting. We also had the mayor of Elkins here to discuss a separate matter, but he did say that they have applied for a grant for over 70 cameras in their city. I want to just share with you some of the things that we need to consider before we go down this road.”

The first point Skinner discussed involved the legalities of having government surveillance covering all the buildings on Main Street.

“If we’re not covering every single building and something would happen in a building that we’re not able to cover, where do we stand from a legal standpoint?” he asked. “Because obviously if an incident took place and it’s well known that we have cameras, we’re going to be asked if we have that footage. Second of all, if we would have had cameras on Main Street the night of the Dairy Queen break-in, I’m not sure that we would have seen the activity because it took place in the rear of the building.”

Skinner said he was also concerned with getting adequate lighting to identify a person committing a crime at night, and he noted the many back alleys and other areas that would need coverage to be effective.

“There are consistent alley networks that go all the way from Florida Street to Locust Street behind these buildings,” he said. “That’s why we have the garbage issues that we have on Main Street, because we don’t have a way to get the trucks behind these buildings, all the way down the street.”

He also wondered if the city would be legally responsible for installing cameras in places other than Main Street, including in residential areas.

“Where do we draw the line? Because private property is private property, no matter where it is,” Skinner said. “If you own a building on Main Street, it is no different ownership-wise than owning a home on Marion Street. Now, I understand the business district is our showcase, it’s what we are known for, it’s what people come here to see — the business district is the crown jewel of our community — but I want us to be mindful of this. We just need to be very careful from a legality standpoint and we have to think about who’s going to monitor all of these cameras.”

He said the city does not have the manpower currently to monitor a city-wide surveillance network.

“Watching hours of footage from each individual camera is very time-consuming, and I know right now we do not have the manpower on staff at either city hall or the police department to be able to watch all of that all the time,” Skinner said. “We would have to think about hiring somebody else or dedicating one of our officers, which would be creating yet another deficit in our police department, to look at the footage all the time.”

Skinner said he was not against the idea of adding cameras if they could be proven effective and not overly expensive.

“I am not saying that I don’t think that we should explore the opportunity, I just want us to be very mindful of those things before we go down this road,” Skinner said. “I spoke to Jerry Arnold earlier this week, and it can be very expensive. There could easily be $50,000 in camera equipment just on Main Street alone and we still may not catch something.”

Director of Public Works Jerry Arnold said the Buckhannon-Upshur Retail Merchants Association approached the board previously and asked the city to help install more cameras on Main Street. Under that proposal, individual businesses would also have been responsible for installing their own security systems.

“BURMA came to Consolidated and they had asked for us to put a camera on Main Street, shooting down Main Street, and they were going to go petition the county to put a camera on the other side of Main Street, and then they were going to go door-to-door to individual businesses and ask the businesses to invest in their own security systems,” Arnold said. “The mayor and I had a conversation about protecting your own property — what happens if we as a city, big brother, steps in and we say ‘Okay, we’re going to cover all of the Main Street area with cameras.’ What happens to the higher crime areas out into the in the residential areas, do we not have a responsibility to those folks as well?”

More information about BURMA’s request can be found in a previous My Buckhannon article here.

“The problem with Main Street is you have trees and planters extending out into the street, and then most of the businesses have recessed doorways and awnings,” Arnold said. “No matter what kind of camera system you get, we found that there are always gaps.”

Skinner said Gregory and the Elkins’ police chief have been talking about sharing their experiences with cameras and if they see a positive change.

“We can take a look and see what they did and who the grantor is, but I think they could be a trial run to see how this goes,” Skinner said. “There are probably no two more similar communities in West Virginia than Elkins and Buckhannon, and we’re fortunate to be just 22 miles apart. I think we could easily look over there and see how it works for them, because this may not work for them. This is going to be a trial for them too, and we’ll see how it works for them and we’ll see what information they have.”

Skinner said he and Gregory found that prior to the Dairy Queen incident, a commercial break-in hadn’t happened in several years and they don’t want to jump the gun. He also noted how social media tends to amplify negative comments.

“I shared with him, and he shared with me, some frustration about some social media posts and people thinking the crime rate in Buckhannon has skyrocketed and people calling us ‘little Chicago,’” Skinner said. “I mean, come on, we had one commercial break-in in several years and suddenly we are a ‘little Chicago.’ I’m not trying to say Buckhannon is perfect, but really and truly, we are very fortunate to have such a low crime rate.”

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