OCEAN SPRINGS -- The idea came from the father of an assault victim in Ocean Springs: Have the state Department of Transportation's traffic cameras on state highways record what they're monitoring for at least 24 hours.
The goal would be to give law enforcement agencies a window of time in which to track fleeing suspects. Right now, the cameras only live-stream.
State Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs, listened to the idea and decided to support it. Zuber has met with MDOT in a telephone conference and plans to enter a bill in the Legislature that would require MDOT to record and save traffic-camera data for a day.
State Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, has given such a measure the nod as well, and says he would support it in the Senate.
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"It's got the potential to solve
a lot of crime that may go unsolved or to solve them in a timely manner," Zuber said.
What spurred the idea was the manhunt after a woman in her 30s was brutally beaten in her office at Ocean Springs' Dominion Apartments in September. City police began looking for the assailant, who was driving a white, early 2000s Chevrolet or GMC SUV. They got that information from nearby business and school cameras, which caught the vehicle in their surveillance video.
"We had a description of the vehicle the day (the assault) took place," said Ocean Springs police Capt. William Jackson, "video of it leaving and going into the apartment complex."
There was no license number, though. Four days later, the search was still on. It was a high-profile crime and tips were coming in. Nine days after the assault, police issued a suspect name and gave a tag number. Cameron Dwayne May of Biloxi was arrested in Florida 11 days after the attack, still driving an SUV matching the initial description.
Afterward, the father of the victim, Danny Jalanivich, talked with city police.
"He told them if they had had a camera at the intersection of U.S. 90 near where the man escaped, they would have been able to track his car down a lot faster," Zuber said. "Man, the infrastructure is all in place. It makes good sense to me. The price? I think it would be nominal."
How much could that be? Zuber asked. He said they're just talking about having MDOT save the video feed for 24 hours.
A helpful tool
Ocean Springs' Jackson said anything that's recorded could be helpful.
Biloxi Police Chief John Miller said, "I don't know how often we'd use it, but I'd certainly like to know it's there. We'd certainly like to have it in the arsenal."
Miller said the issue that often arises for police departments is data storage, which can be costly. But Zuber's plan was to have the state's cameras record and store for only 24-hour periods.
Jalanivich, who is the Ocean Springs harbor master, talked with the Sun Herald.
"We have a unique situation on the Coast," he said. U.S. 90 connects towns along the Coast. Someone fleeing a crime would likely go down U.S. 90 or up a major highway to the interstate, he said. "It's almost impossible to get around the Coast and not be seen by one of those cameras.
"It surprised me when I found out that the cameras were only live-streaming -- that the state spent that kind of money and didn't have fully functioning cameras."
Not in the plan
MDOT has 507 cameras on state highways throughout the state.
It's possible to log on and watch stop-action streaming at intersections where the cameras are installed.
The cameras send information into a Traffic Management Center, which observes the state's most-traveled highways to ensure safety and traffic flow, according to MDOT. It's the information hub for the state's highways. The data allows MDOT to keep thousands of drivers up to date on traffic via smartphone apps, message signs, social media and highway advisories. Last year, MDOT sent 9,000 traffic alerts, 3,000 accident alerts and 1,600 weather alerts.
The camera system, begun in 2008, was designed to "optimize the transportation system" -- a technology MDOT sees only as traffic management. It can tell drivers when traffic is backing up at an intersection.
Zuber said in his initial contact with MDOT, the agency was not on board with the idea of using the network as a law enforcement tool.
"They said they were opposed to it," he said. He speculated it might involve added work. But he is moving forward with writing the bill.
MDOT Public Affairs Director Jarrod Ravencraft said the issue has come up before.
"We've had requests from local law enforcement in the past, but our current system doesn't allow for recording," he said. "It monitors."
First responders and government agencies can get information in a live-stream format, he said, but only while it's happening.
What Mississippi has is similar to the systems of other states such as Tennessee and Louisiana, he said.
What would it take to make the switch?
He said he wouldn't be able to answer without doing research.
"It's not something we've looked at," he said. "If the law changes, we'd look into it" -- consider the cost to upgrade the current system or get a new one.
"But all of our efforts now are focused on maintaining our current system," he said, "at our current funding level."