Sheriff's office credits Hilton Head cameras for convictions; wants more

Private eyes. They're watching you. And now those eyes want to see more of you on Hilton Head Island.The town began placing security cameras at Chaplin Park in 2007 as a pilot project after a rash of "smash-and-grab" robberies to vehicles parked there. Since then, Hilton Head has spent about $500,000 to install 200 cameras in its parks.

"The installation of cameras resulted in a decrease in the level of illegal activity at this pilot site and proved to be a very valuable investigative tool," said Tom Fultz, town director of administrative services.

The town has cameras at 11 sites and plans to add more. The town's Public Safety Committee asked the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office on Monday to list other places -- including private property -- where security cameras could help reduce crime.

Committee member and Town Councilman Bill Ferguson and Town Council candidate Mary Amonitti spoke of the need to place cameras in the "tri-community area" of Sandalwood Terrace, Hilton Head Gardens and The Oaks.

Sheriff's Capt. Toby McSwain said law-enforcement officers spoke with the owners of the three properties about installing security cameras, but none could afford the surveillance. Questions of privacy are also a concern.

"We can't use public funds for private property, unless that's approved by the county or town councils and the owners," McSwain said. "We also want to be careful cameras are not pointed at private residences or structures. That could lead to a huge (privacy) debate."

Sandalwood Terrace is owned by the Beaufort Housing Authority. Hilton Head Gardens and The Oaks are privately owned.

Both Sandalwood Terrace and Hilton Head Gardens provide federally subsidized housing for low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

Representatives of the housing developments were not at the meeting.

"It's been a tough area with drug activity, rapes and homicides. We've had all of the above in the past," McSwain said.

Policing the area has been difficult, and cameras would help, he said.

"The problem is people don't want to give us information because they think it will get back to them. People are scared," McSwain said.

Management for Hilton Head Gardens and Sandalwood Terrace, though, have helped the Sheriff's Office in its investigations and have evicted criminals, he said.

Committee chairman Bill Harkins suggested cameras also be placed on private property in the North and South Forest Beach areas, which have "a consistent volume of crime."

"Even though it's a private area, it's a public concern," Harkins said, especially when it comes to the island's image.

Amonitti suggested cameras be placed on public roads to monitor the entrances to the private properties.

McSwain cautioned the town to respect privacy.Most crime on the island, particularly violent crime, is down for the third quarter of 2010, compared to the same period in 2009 and 2008. Burglaries and thefts, however, are up slightly from 2009, but below 2008 and 2007 levels, according to the Sheriff's Office.

A total of 499 burglaries and thefts were recorded for the third quarter of 2010, compared to 457 during the same period in 2009.

McSwain said more criminals are breaking into vehicles, but investigators are making arrests and generating helpful leads from video surveillance at parks.

At least seven arrests have been made as a result of footage obtained from island security cameras, since they've been installed, he said.

"These cameras have been a huge asset to us," McSwain said.