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Cameras on I-95 erase evidence, let shooters go free
South Florida Sun Sentinel - 12/31/2020
Some of the worst crimes on Interstate 95 were captured on camera. But the images just as quickly vanished.
Cameras all along the deadly corridor monitor traffic flow, but the Florida Department of Transportation won’t set them to record. Victims of violence and highway patrol troopers say video recordings would help them find who pulled the trigger in highway shootings. But FDOT representatives told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the agency doesn’t want the chore and expense of storing vast amounts of video footage.
Florida lags behind other states who are turning to video cameras and other technology to catch speeders, aggressive drivers and shooters. In California, gunshot detection equipment, cameras and license plate readers have been credited with reducing highway shootings. In Illinois, an increase in freeway shootings prompted the recent approval to roll out roadside video cameras and tag readers. In Maryland, cameras catch speeders.
Troopers in Florida who are trying to solve more and more highway shootings search — usually in vain — for evidence from license plate readers, surveillance cameras and gunshot detectors, records show. Then they close cases quickly, declaring “all available leads extinguished.”
Shootings on I-95 are on the rise, but the Florida Highway Patrol rarely solves cases. Drivers who accidentally cut someone off in traffic are barraged with gunfire, and the shooter almost always escapes. In just the last year, a young woman was killed, a teen boy was paralyzed and numerous others were grazed by bullets in unsolved I-95 shootings.
No state in America has left its highway patrol as understaffed as Florida. Legislators and a host of governors have long ignored the danger on I-95, failing to placing enough troopers on the state‘s busiest highway, punishing FHP brass who pushed to increase enforcement, and stumbling over legislation that would make I-95 safer by putting drone cameras and other tools to work.
Grieving Florida families are outraged that Florida is not using technology that’s readily available — especially cameras on I-95. FDOT has more than 570 live-streaming cameras stationed along the 379-mile highway, but they don’t record.
Sheilla Nuñez believes cameras caught her daughter’s last moments and held what to this day remains a mystery — the identity of her killer. It’s been one year since Melissa Gonzalez, 22, was shot dead on I-95 near 79th Street in the West Little River neighborhood of Miami.
Police said they suspect she was hit by a stray bullet from the neighborhood just off the highway.
“They didn’t get any footage,” Nuñez , of North Bay Village, said in an interview with the Sun Sentinel.
Melissa Gonzalez had just graduated Florida International University and wanted to become a family law attorney. She and her boyfriend were on their way to Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach to visit her sick grandfather when a bullet ripped through the back passenger side window of her Chevrolet hatchback.
Melissa had been chatting with her boyfriend as she drove, and suddenly stopped talking. The bullet had struck her head. Her boyfriend put the car in park to slow it and jumped out, terrified.
Her mother wants justice and is desperate for answers. She can’t sleep. She cries constantly. She has a younger daughter who will be driving one day and fears for her safety.
“It’s the worst that someone can experience, a mother could experience,” Nuñez said.
Cameras ‘a great tool’
Transportation officials in several states have recognized the need to preserve camera views of highways to save lives and have found it is not too burdensome.
Highway cameras monitoring traffic conditions in Florida operate on a continuous loop, quickly overwriting old material. But in Wisconsin, video is saved for three days, then overwritten. In New Jersey, it’s seven days. During that time, law enforcement, lawyers, the media or the general public can request copies of footage.
Maryland uses cameras to deter aggressive driving. Speed cameras in highway construction zones in Maryland capture drivers going at least 12 miles over the limit, resulting in $40 fines. Over a decade, the cameras cut speeding by 90 percent, state officials found.
In Illinois, lawmakers sprung into action after a postal worker, Tamara Clayton, was shot dead on I-57 in February 2019. A new law there allows high definition cameras and license plate readers on expressways. The initiative was a direct response to gang-related gun violence on Chicago-area highways, which hovered around 50 shootings annually in recent years, then skyrocketed to 112 by early December 2020.
“Cameras are a great tool to assist with solving these types of crimes and also to deter people from committing future violent crimes such as these expressway shootings,” Illinois State Police Sgt. Delila Garcia told the Sun Sentinel.
During the 2019 debate over the law, Illinois state Rep. Thaddeus Jones, who sponsored the bill, said adding 35 new cameras in Cook County would cost about $500,000. Many ordinary traffic cameras are mounted too high above the roadway or angled improperly to provide the make, model or even color of the vehicles. Without better cameras and license plate readers, Jones said only seven of 168 shootings over three years ended in arrest.
“They closed each and every one of those cases because they couldn’t make an arrest and didn’t have the ability to capture those shootings on our expressway,” he said of the unsolved cases.
In Florida, the lack of camera recordings thwart investigations, including one in which a woman was shot in the eye. A trooper investigating that May 6, 2020, shooting on I-95 near Pembroke Road in Broward County wrote that he canvassed the area where the shooting occurred looking for evidence.
“I went to the business near the area to locate video footage or witnesses to the shooting. I went to a Shell gas station, Family Tire business, and a Public Storage ... I was unable to find video footage, or any other leads around the area to help the investigation.” The trooper noted in his report that the cameras on I-95 are “the live feed cameras used by the Traffic Management Center (TMC). These camera feeds are not recorded or digitally stored.”
Florida Transportation Department spokeswoman Beth Frady said the agency uses cameras to monitor traffic, post travel information on message boards, and quickly dispatch police or tow trucks.
The cameras are not the high definition ideal for capturing details, but show grainy images in which a car’s make and model could be discerned. Illinois is upgrading to better cameras with higher quality images.
“Recording would be impractical and costly,” Frady said. “With more than 570 live-streaming cameras on I-95, administering and storing these videos would require additional staff as well as bandwidth and storage capabilities, which would impose additional costs to FDOT that would be transferred to the taxpayer.”
Florida spends billions on highway improvements — $3.2 billion on I-95 in the last eight years alone. Similar arguments about video storage were made regarding police body-worn cameras before they became the norm in departments across the country.
States that have enabled the traffic recordings have found it not as burdensome as some originally feared. New Jersey Transportation Department spokeswoman Judith L. Drucker told the Sun Sentinel that existing staff was able to handle requests for video footage.
A 2016 Federal Highway Administration technical report looked at how various state transportation departments record, archive and share highway footage.
It found that “in many instances” state transportation agencies share video with police. But it noted that New Mexico did not change its policy of never recording footage, even after a 4-year-old girl was shot dead in 2015 in a road rage incident on Interstate 40 in Albuquerque. The shooting happened near a New Mexico Department of Transportation camera.
New Mexico told federal officials that the primary purpose of the cameras is to monitor traffic — and that recording all feeds most of the time would cost too much, the 2016 report states.
Florida is tiptoeing into technology, cautious because of privacy concerns that hang over government surveillance, legislators said.
ShotSpotter gunshot detection is in limited use in all three South Florida counties, but not along I-95. License plate readers are mounted on police cars and stationed on some roadways, but are not prevalent. Unmanned flying drones are in testing by FHP now, and their use on highways is expected to be expanded by the Legislature, but only for collecting evidence after a crime or accident has occurred.
Technology experts describe how a modern network could work: someone is shot on I-95, and immediately, gunshot detecting software alerts police to the location where the shots were fired. High definition cameras capture video of the crime, transmitting information about the make and model of the shooter’s car. License plate readers mounted over the lanes “see” tag numbers of all cars racing down the highway at the time, and capture tag numbers of cars meeting the suspect vehicle’s description. Drones are launched to the shooting location to quickly photograph the scene and look for bullets or other evidence.
Incoming state Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, a tech entrepreneur, said surveillance technology isn’t always acceptable in the United States, because of a commitment to civil liberties.
“We want to be sure we don’t record every movement that every person makes. That’s important to maintain people’s privacy,” Giallombardo said. “We’ve got to make sure law enforcement agencies have the capability and technology to do their job and make us safe, but then again … also maintain our privacy.”
In northern California, an “epidemic” of highway shootings prompted officials to test ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology on a freeway for the first time, supplementing it with license plate readers and cameras.
Gang members were purposefully committing shootings on the highway because the shootings were difficult to solve. The new surveillance network led to a drastic decrease in shootings, and the two that took place this year were solved, Contra Costa County assistant district attorney Mary Elizabeth Knox told the Sun Sentinel. Just the presence of the network served as a deterrent, Knox said.
“It’s been a huge success,” she said.
Technology experts and legislators like Giallambardo who support a limited expansion of drone use in Florida say it would magnify the presence of the understaffed highway patrol, freeing troopers up from hours-long roadside investigations. Drones also could locate evidence like spent bullets.
In Florida’s Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, law enforcement “may not use a drone to gather evidence or other information.” The proposed law would make it clear drones can be used to collect evidence after a crime, but stops short of using drones to catch speeders and issue citations or otherwise “spy on people,” said Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored drone legislation in the past.
FHP already is testing drones on the highway, according to a 2018 contract with Boca-based Eagle Eye Intelligence, now called STRAX Intelligence Group.
Jan. 3 will be an especially painful day for Sheila Nuñez and her family. It marks one year since her daughter’s killing, and police have caught no one.
Nuñez brought her daughter to America from Cuba to have a better life. Years later, In February 2019, Melissa praised her mother’s bravery: “This woman is the reason I get to live in the US.”
Nuñez and Melissa’s boyfriend, Julian Veliz, visited Melissa’s grave on Christmas. Veliz, a pharmacy technician, said the tragedy changed “everything” for him. In their year together the pair enjoyed nightclubs, the beach, the Great Smoky Mountains.
“She’s a wonderful woman ... It’s difficult to find a girl like her.”
Without Melissa, Veliz said, it’s “like someone removed your happiness.”
Brittany Wallman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4541. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyWallman. Megan O’Matz can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4518.
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