Cameras help Myrtle Beach cops track criminals, but there are no rules to limit their use

MBPD monitor over 800 cameras in real-time crime center

The Myrtle Beach Police Department monitors over 800 video cameras in the real-time crime center.
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The Myrtle Beach Police Department monitors over 800 video cameras in the real-time crime center.

If you’re driving within Myrtle Beach city limits, odds are high that the police are recording you.

About 800 security cameras are located throughout the city as part of a nearly $2.2 million project completed by Myrtle Beach Police Department more than two years ago.

The department spent nearly $330,000 in additional maintenance and licensing fees through June 2018, though maintenance expenses have totaled $11,630 since it hired a dedicated IT employee, according to documents responsive to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The open-records request also revealed that, despite the large investment and capacity of the camera system, MBPD has not established any written policies regarding their use.

There is no mention of security cameras in the department’s 830-page policies and procedures manual, which does include a section on body-worn cameras. The policy states that recordings no longer useful for training, an investigation or prosecution will be retained no less than 14 days, and disposal authorization must be approved by the police chief or their designee.

Greg Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit advocating online civil liberties and human rights, said it’s important for police to have an established retention period for video monitoring footage.

“It gives the public confidence that while they may be monitored for a short time, it’s not forever when you walk by a camera,” he said, pointing out that Great Britain guides its law enforcement to dispose of footage within 30 days if it’s no longer useful. “The length of retention should be set to balance privacy rights with the need to investigate crimes that occurred.”

Just because the Myrtle Beach Police Department doesn’t have policies regarding security cameras right now, doesn’t mean they never will, said Cpl. Thomas Vest. He declined to say how long they store footage from the cameras, noting only that the cameras have varying storage capacity.

Video surveillance can be abused by police, Nojeim said, including the possibility of voyeurism or monitoring protesters.

In addition to a retention policy, he suggested MBPD should include policies about training officers to properly use the cameras and conduct regular audits to determine who is looking at the footage.

Every Myrtle Beach police officer has access to footage from the security cameras, though the footage is most regularly monitored by two retired law enforcement officers in the department’s real-time crime center.

How cameras are used

Bill Gregg sits in front of three computer monitors and six television screens showing between four and nine camera views at a time. The sheer amount of cameras was overwhelming when he first started in 2017, but he’s grown more comfortable, he told The Sun News.

“In my sleep, if someone says a car is going east or west, I could tell you the next cross street where we have a camera,” he said, adding that he’s also become more familiar with driver tendencies.

A retired patrol officer with the Sharon City Police Department in Pennsylvania, Gregg said monitoring the real-time crime center has allowed him to return to a career he loves.

Occasionally, Gregg will see an incident live — he was able to dispatch emergency personnel recently when he noticed a man suffering a seizure on Withers Drive — but he typically has to rewind footage to a few minutes before an incident call is made.

The cameras are most frequently used with vehicle accidents. Gregg said when he hears a call for an accident, he’ll review footage from nearby cameras and advise dispatched officers of any injuries, airbag deployment and potential road blocks.

“It decreases time to get vital information,” he said.

Vest noted the cameras have been particularly helpful in solving hit-and-run cases.

Drivers leaving the scene of an accident has long been an issue in Myrtle Beach, Vest said, because people often are here on vacation and figure they’ll be gone before police find them.

The cameras allow police to follow the vehicle, run their tag and locate the driver within hours or even minutes, Vest said.

Gregg said the real-time crime center also has been integral to five homicide investigations, including the January 2018 murder of Colle Muirhead.

Myrtle Beach tracked this murder suspect with security cameras. The police have used footage from some of their 800 security cameras placed around the city to assist with five homicide investigations since 2016.

Police were able to identify a suspect’s motorcycle and followed his movement on camera to an ATM. Police then contacted the suspect’s bank, identified him as Chandler Ari Dunmeyer, 19, and charged him with murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.

Dunmeyer, who served in the U.S. Army Airborne’s 82nd Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the time of the killing, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in August while free on bond.

Gregg said that there are instances where cameras aren’t working — during a Sun News visit to the center, five camera views displayed “server lost connection to camera” or “camera is not available” — for reasons such as an airplane flying overhead.

But he said the department is usually able to work around any issues by looking at other nearby cameras.

Other eyes on the city

In addition to the security cameras, the real-time crime center includes footage of South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s license plate readers located at city entry and exit points.

The readers capture every tag, Gregg said, but only activate if the license plate number hits on the National Crime Information Center database, which include wanted or missing persons and stolen vehicles.

The department has also recently begun monitoring Ring’s Neighbors app, which allows residents to anonymously send law enforcement personnel footage from their personal security cameras.

The app, license readers and department security cameras were all recently used to solve a burglary investigation, as a resident sent MBPD footage of a suspicious person near their apartment on 74th Avenue North near North Ocean Boulevard, and police tracked the man’s car until it crossed a license reader, Vest explained.

Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.