NORTH PORT — Exactly 253 miles northeast of town, Nikki North sits before a bank of video screens. A crime analyst with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office on the Atlantic coastline, North and others track drivers moving in and out of the city of Palm Coast.
Some 38 cameras are positioned mostly around the city’s perimeter, something like a security fence.
North will dispatch patrol cars as accidents occur or an intersection gets dangerous, as Palm Coast had doubled in size between 2000-2010.
But she’s also on the alert for crooks. The police agency uses technology that reads license plates or identifies make and model, night or day, bad guys lurching from camera to camera until they’re pounced on.
Missing person alerts are also on her menu, as traffic equipment locates wandering seniors, runaway teens, abducted kids, for instance.
Flagler County modeled its success on St. Johns County, home to St. Augustine, a tourist mecca. Flagler County had installed plate readers in 2019, updated cameras this year, North said.
Palm Coast had even snagged a burglary ring using the newest technology, the bad guys slipping into Flagler County from St. Johns County, its neighbor. Plate reading software, which feeds from state and federal registration systems, provided make and model details to circling officers.
“It’s the best investment we’ve made,” North said.
Which is how Chris Morales views traffic technology.
North Port’s deputy police chief had pushed for the equipment, rewarded this budget cycle, as the city will install two dozen traffic cameras, plate reader software and other goodies in the package. City cash or surtaxes in two rounds would pay more than $1 million for the equipment, said Morales, who had visited northeast Florida to observe the system in action.
Morales and his boss, Chief Todd Garrison, picture a security perimeter such as Palm Coast’s, a ring to monitor strategic spots, the software hunting for trends and incidents, Morales said, criminals, or those who are lost or abducted.
“We’re not the pioneers,” he said, “but we will use the technology.”
Morales has a cop way of telling war stories — stoic and humorless. But his tone is much more animated in discussing the death of young North Port woman in 2008. Denise Amber Lee was abducted by a man now on Florida’s Death Row.
But had today’s technology existed just 12 years ago, chances are Michael King’s car would have been flagged, as it was sighted by others pinpointing its location, said Morales, then a North Port police detective investigating Lee’s murder.
The system at that time, however, failed.
“My God, we would have been on (him) instantaneously,” Morales said of pursuing King’s green Camaro, adding that a mobile tracking device in 2018 had traced one driver who had shot at another one. That driver regularly used North Port’s Price Boulevard and was tracked by his car’s make and model. He had empty gun shells in the car when pulled over. He confessed. The other driver was unhurt.
North Port approves its budget next month. Sales tax would cover the first phase in the 2020-21 cycle.
Wielding its power of speculation, social media had surmised that police plate readers would mean tickets for rogue drivers; or worse, snooping, Morales and North said.
Anticipating incorrect rumors, Flagler County had drafted a letter to alert locals that plate readers would help, not hurt.
“We know it’s coming,” North said of rumormill blowback. “But so far … nothing.”
“We’re not sending tickets,” Morales added. “It’s about keeping our community safe.”