Images of two men at a convenience store — captured by a security camera — turned into key evidence in the arrest, and later conviction, of defendants in a 2013 Sorrento execution-style killing.
The footage showed two of three suspects at the store, located a mile away from the murder site, just prior to the killing of Gerald Wilkins, found dead by the side of the road. “It was an important piece of evidence,” said Ascension Parish Chief Deputy Tony Bacala.
More recently, video from a privately owned security camera gave detectives a lead in last month’s murders of two men in Donaldsonville. Detectives are still investigating that case, looking for a white vehicle spotted by a private security camera.
“We’ve been using, for years, other people’s cameras,” Sheriff Jeff Wiley said. “They’re invaluable.”
While security cameras owned by businesses and residents have helped solve crimes, Wiley and Bacala said the agency is now looking to amp up its own surveillance capabilities. With a $75,000 donation from PCS Nitrogen, which owns a chemical plant in Geismar, the agency soon plans to double the number of its own cameras in the parish.
For about a decade, the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office has operated about 50 remote video surveillance cameras set high on key roadways for purposes of monitoring traffic flow around hurricanes or plant emergencies.
The office also keeps security cameras at the two courthouses and at the parish jail.
The new cameras — another 50 — will be placed throughout Ascension Parish with an eye toward gathering evidence to help solve crimes. The cameras will be set lower to the ground and will have “much more sophistication and clarity,” Wiley said.
Camera placement will be geared toward neighborhoods and roads determined to be “hot spots” of criminal activity, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office is evaluating different types of cameras, Bacala said.
“There are a variety of options,” he said. For instance, a camera that works in a well-lit neighborhood is not going to work as well in a neighborhood with no street lights.
Some of the cameras will be able to be quickly moved from one spot to another, he said.
“It’s going to be a very ambitious build out,” Wiley said.
The entire project will cost between $75,000 and $100,000, he said.
Most of the PCS Nitrogen donation will go toward the purchase of the hardware and software needed to support the expanded surveillance camera system, he said. The office also plans to put U.S. Department of Justice and Sheriff’s Office general fund money toward the project.
The Sheriff’s Office hopes to begin purchasing the cameras within two months.
There has recently been a rash of violent crime in Donaldsonville, which saw four shootings in January, including the murder of two men in the front yard of a home. But Wiley said the surveillance camera effort wasn’t a reaction to those incidents and emphasized that the violent crime rate in Ascension Parish still falls below that of the state and country.
The Sheriff’s Office has, for some time, wanted to expand its camera system, but was hamstrung because the hardware and software were at capacity, Bacala said.
When PCS Nitrogen in Geismar came to the Sheriff’s Office and asked if there was a project it could help with, the Sheriff’s Office jumped at the opportunity.
Wiley said he hasn’t gotten any negative feedback about the new remote video cameras.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said that if a crime is committed, a surveillance camera is “a reasonable crime-fighting tool.”
But she emphasized that it is important for law enforcement to set limits on how long they keep images from the cameras.
A 2011 study by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., evaluated public surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and found that in places where cameras “were sufficiently concentrated and routinely monitored by trained staff, the impact on crime was significant and cost-beneficial” with no evidence that crime moved to other areas without cameras.
In Baton Rouge, approximately 120 surveillance cameras are “widely used and very beneficial,” said Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department.
“They’ve been used for a while and they’ve proven their worth,” McKneely said.
Wiley said that the use of video camera technology in Ascension Parish is the most recent in continuing developments in criminal investigations that have included ballistics and DNA evidence techniques.
“It’s another investigative tool,” he said.