Beaufort County has installed more than 100 surveillance cameras in public buildings during the past two years, and some officials are hoping to place the devices at libraries, parks and boat landings.
County administration is working on a plan with Sheriff P.J. Tanner to determine which facilities should have security cameras, according to deputy county administrator Bryan Hill.
"We're not at the stage yet to start putting cameras everywhere," Hill said Wednesday.
Tanner says broader use of cameras is warranted and that the devices on Hilton Head Island and elsewhere have helped his deputies solve cases. Surveillance footage also has been used in courtrooms to win convictions, he said.
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"The great thing about a camera system is that they work seven days a week, 24 hours a day," he said. "That's extremely important. We catch a lot of activity on the camera system that would be hit-and-miss with deputies patrolling."
All told, the county has 110 cameras in operation, but Tanner and other officials won't say where all of them are located. At least 40 were installed inside the Beaufort County Courthouse in 2010. In recent months, the devices were installed at the county administration building in Beaufort.
"The reason we keep it close to the vest is that we don't want bad guys to know" where cameras are, county administrator Gary Kubic said recently.
Tom Fultz, Hilton Head director of administrative services, said the town first installed security cameras in Chaplin Community Park about five years ago. It now operates 211 cameras in more than a dozen parks, including Folly Field Beach Park, Fish Haul Park and Coligny Beach Park.
Installation of the cameras coincided with a sharp drop in vandalism and "smash-and-grab" car break-ins, he said. "It takes a pretty dumb crook to break into a car with a camera watching."
But research on whether surveillance cameras reduce crime is inconclusive. A 2011 Urban Institute report indicated crime fell in one Chicago park with cameras but not another. The same report found that many sections of downtown Baltimore with security cameras experienced less crime.
"We found significant declines in total crime, violent crime, and larceny (in) downtown (Baltimore) from January 2003 through April 2008. Also, we found no evidence that crime was being displaced to nearby areas," the report said.
While Fultz and Tanner said they haven't heard complaints about security cameras, that doesn't mean the devices are universally loved.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the cameras can inhibit freedom of speech and freedom of expression in public parks. She said there also have been numerous situations across the U.S. where authorities used the devices inappropriately.
"I think a general principle is that in American society, the government does not invade people's privacy and collect information on ... innocent people," Middleton said Wednesday.
For now, plans to expand use of the devices in the county doesn't appear controversial. County Council members reached Wednesday said they weren't aware of the administration's plans, but had no problem with it.