Siesta Key gets one of new license plate readers that Sheriff’s Office is testing countywide in effort to apprehend more criminals

Device stands on Ocean Boulevard, facing drivers heading to Siesta Village

Early last week, Siesta Key residents notified The Sarasota News Leader about a new pole on the west side of Ocean Boulevard, just north of the Gleason Avenue intersection.

The pole is in the area that some people refer to as “Deadman’s Curve,” because of the number of accidents that have taken place there over the decades. Drivers apparently speeding as they were heading north into the curve have run off the west side of the road, hitting a privacy wall at times and routinely damaging a county railing that used to stand there.

More recently, the crews working for Gator Paving & Grading of Palmetto have installed new stormwater equipment in that curve as part of the county’s Higel Avenue-Ocean Boulevard drainage project.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry, Sarasota County Public Works Director Spencer Anderson said he had no idea about the purpose of the pole; it is not county equipment.

Anderson suggested that the News Leader contact the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Thanks to the help of that agency’s creative communications specialist, Douglas Johnson, the News Leader learned that the pole holds a license plate reader (LPR).

In answers to the News Leader’s follow-up questions, Johnson explained that that pole is the only LPR installed on Siesta Key.

Johnson added that Sheriff’s Office personnel are engaged in a countywide study involving the devices, to enhance law enforcement capabilities. “We wanted to include Siesta Key as part of the study,” he wrote in a July 25 email.

An LPR installed on the north end of the Key would capture vehicles going to Siesta Village and the beaches, Johnson noted.

The residents who reported the pole to the News Leader did point out that it is facing traffic headed south on Ocean Boulevard, in the direction of Siesta Village.

“This specific location is on a county road, with a workable permitting procedure in place,” Johnson explained, in contrast to the situation with a state road.

Over the past couple of years, county staff worked to complete a swap of road jurisdictions with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). All of the roads on Siesta Key — except for sections over specific bridges — have come under county authority. In turn, FDOT assumed jurisdiction of North River Road in South County.

For decades, county commissioners strived to persuade FDOT leaders of the need to widen and improve River Road, especially as more residential communities were being constructed in South County, and the Atlanta Braves began Spring Training in Wellen Park, near Venice. FDOT officials had explained that, as long as River Road was in the county’s jurisdiction, the state department could not justify allocating significant resources to making it a safer route for drivers. Thus, county staff worked with FDOT on the road swap idea to enable River Road to attain a high priority, as a regional route, for the necessary improvements.

Moreover, Johnson pointed out in his July 25 email to the News Leader, “[T]his location [for the Siesta pole] provides adequate sun lighting to the camera, as it is solar-powered.”

During Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman’s June 23 presentation of his 2023 fiscal year budget to the County Commission, he talked about LPRs, calling them “probably the most significant piece of technology in law enforcement right now …”

Hoffman added that the county’s most recent crime wave prior to his appearance that day before the commission had involved individuals from Fort Myers. Earlier this year, he indicated, the agency dealt with criminals from St. Petersburg who had driven into Sarasota County.

The sheriff then noted that the agency was testing LPRs, with the goal of being able to apprehend individuals suspected of having committed crimes.

The Cities of North Port, Sarasota and Venice, the Town of Longboat Key, and Manatee and Charlotte counties also have installed LPRs, Hoffman told the commissioners.