Eye in the sky
AHOSKIE – One thing is for certain – members of the Ahoskie Town Council are not rushing a decision to possibly disallow concealed or open carry weapons within municipally owned parks.
Following a public hearing and discussion among council members at their meeting here Tuesday morning, Ahoskie’s elected leaders opted to table the issue for additional study. The deciding factor behind delaying the decision was a plan to install security cameras at the town’s most popular park – the Ahoskie Creek Recreational Complex.
Carol Phillips was the only citizen to address the council during a scheduled public hearing on the matter….one that proposed to completely delete sections 3 and 4 of Chapter 46 of the town’s ordinances and replace it with language that prohibits the presence of weapons within town-owned parks. That proposal stems from a decision made in September of last year by the North Carolina General Assembly to modify a state law dealing with guns in public parks and other public places controlled by municipalities.
“I’ve been taking my daughter to the park (Ahoskie Creek Complex) since she was very little and we enjoy it there,” Phillips said. “A few Sundays ago, I was there with her after my husband dropped us off and then he left to do some shopping. Two gentlemen came into the park area, neither had children with them and they were drinking. It made me very uncomfortable and I was concerned for the safety of my daughter and I.
“I have a permit to carry a firearm and I do carry it with me most all the time, with the exception of the places it’s not permitted,” Phillips continued. “I did not have it that day and I felt extremely vulnerable and was concerned about these two gentlemen. There were no park personnel there or police cars there at that time. We couldn’t leave because my husband was not there. I did call him on his cell phone and he arrived a few minutes later. As soon as he pulled up those two gentlemen left.”
Phillips requested that the council study this issue very closely before reaching a decision to ban weapons at a public park.
“What prevents a law-abiding citizen from legally having a firearm to protect themselves and their children,” she asked. “It’s been proven that firearms help to save lives, not the opposite.”
Phillips added that if the Ahoskie Council opts to prohibit legally carried weapons at the park, she will never again visit that location.
Once the public hearing was closed, several Council members addressed the issue.
“It can be a little bit scary out there at the park when you’re alone and you can’t raise someone on the cell phone,” said Councilwoman Linda Blackburn. “I’ve seen some strange folks out there when I’m out walking my dog. I’ve been wondering if we could have those blue lights (call boxes) like you see on the East Carolina campus installed at our park. Those phones provide a direct link to the police department. That’s an alternative to the gun issue.”
Town Manager Tony Hammond said he and Ahoskie Police Chief Troy Fitzhugh are currently in the process of having security cameras installed at the Ahoskie Creek Complex.
“Those cameras are so sophisticated that I can put one in the back of baseball field number three and see what type of cigarette a person is smoking sitting in the amphitheater parking lot,” Hammond noted. “They cost about $3,000 to $4,000 apiece and we need five of them to cover that entire park, but it’s a security system we feel we need to have in place out there.”
“Are those cameras monitored all the time,” asked Blackburn.
“Yes, at the police station, they’ll have a monitor, a separate screen, there to watch over the park, 24/7,” Hammond replied.
Hammond said a camera surveillance system is also planned for Main Street.
Mayor Brien Lassiter, a former police officer, said he has no problem with citizens having a permit to legally carry an open display weapon.
“It’s the conceal carry (weapons) that bothers me,” he stressed. “Most people, not all, that do legally carry a weapon are law abiding citizens. If we determined a certain place in town where’s it’s not legal to carry a weapon, we pretty much are telling the bad guys that here’s a place you can go and there’s not going to be anybody out there with a weapon, at least those who are following the rules of the town. I have a concern with that. We’re leaving our law abiding citizens without protection. Somebody could drag someone off in the woods and who knows what happens then.”
“If we don’t have surveillance cameras out there then I can see your point,” Blackburn remarked.
“Wal Mart, Food Lion and Duck Thru all have surveillance cameras and we’ve had two armed robberies in our town in the last few months,” Lassiter noted. “People put masks or bandanas across their face to hide their identity from the camera.”
Councilman Malcolm Copeland motioned to table the proposed changes to the town ordinance and bring the issue back up after the surveillance cameras are installed at the Ahoskie Creek Complex. Councilwoman Elaine Myers offered a second.
Prior to the vote, Councilman Maurice Vann asked for clarification if the ordinance change was later approved or disapproved, would the cameras still be installed. Hammond said the process is already underway to purchase and install the surveillance system.
“This (gun) issue is not the only issue I have out there at the park,” Hammond said. “Several months ago someone spray painted the amphitheater. We’ve had kids going out there on weekends on four-wheelers and cutting doughnuts in the soccer field. Someone ripped down all the lights on the concession stand and shoved sticks down the toilet. It’s getting out of hand and this camera system is the only way I can control it.”
“Could you also look into the blue light call boxes,” asked Blackburn.
“Yes, we can do that as well,” Hammond said.
With that, Council members voted 5-0 to table the issue.
The possible ban on weapons at Ahoskie’s parks was initially studied following an incident in May at Ahoskie Creek. Hammond noted at the Council meeting in June that there was an individual at the park that was carrying a pistol strapped to his waist, which is not illegal since he did not have a concealed weapon.
“There are some state laws that have been changed in the last few years dealing with where and where you cannot regulate weapons, where people can and cannot bring those weapons,” Hammond said at the June meeting. “The majority of what can be regulated by a municipality has to be posted as an ordinance.”