BRADENTON -- Riverwalk is gaining a reputation as a family friendly place, and authorities are trying to protect that reputation by using enhanced surveillance.
In April, the first set of security cameras came online at the park, which led to the arrest of two people committing a vehicle burglary the first day, said Bradenton Downtown Development Authority Executive Director David Gustafson.
At first, the 16 cameras -- found on the city hall building, the day dock, skate park, fishing pier and throughout Riverwalk -- only had recording capabilities, which allowed police to review video after an incident was reported.
Now the Bradenton Police Department can monitor Riverwalk in real time from the department's front desk and patrol cars.
"I can be in my car and see all of Riverwalk now," Bradenton officer Kenneth Simunovic said. "All three officers assigned to Riverwalk all have iPads in our vehicles. It allows me to see things I would normally never see. It's helping to keep the riff-raff out of Riverwalk. It definitely works and has helped solve several crimes."
Simunovic and other officers park in specific locations to gain access to the cameras, and can be guided on patrol by the front desk officer monitoring the cameras.
"The quality of the cameras is really good and it has been a great investment," he said.
Most who use the park seem unaware of the cameras.
"I wasn't aware of them at all until today when I happened to look up and see one that looked like a camera," said Tracy Sanders, who lives in Bradenton and was visiting the park Thursday for the third time since it officially opened as Riverwalk.
Gustafson said the DDA is working on installing signs at Riverwalk to let everyone know the park is under surveillance, which he believes will be a crime deterrent.
"The cameras are a good thing," said Sanders. "I used to come down here before it was Riverwalk and I stopped coming because of all the bad things that were happening here. Just knowing the cameras are there gives me a sense of peace I didn't have before."
Keisha Green, another longtime Bradenton resident who knows what the riverfront was like before Riverwalk, said the changes are incredible.
"It has a whole new feeling," she said. "It feels safe."
She, too, only recently became aware of the cameras and said she is happy they are there.
"It was probably hard for the police to figure out who was doing what before because the kind of people that used to come here weren't going to talk to the police," said Green. "I'm glad the cameras are in place to be able to solve crimes. It makes me feel a whole lot more comfortable coming here with my kids."
John Richard, visiting from Providence, R.I., said he made a point to see Riverwalk. He called the cameras a "good idea, especially with all these kids running around."
There is still room for improvement, according to Police Sgt. Curtis Johnson, who said some dark areas are difficult to see with the cameras. He cited a recent incident where a 14-year-old girl scaled the fence and jumped into the Manatee River at night. Getting into the river is easy, but getting out is another story. Fortunately, the illegal swimming incident didn't lead to tragedy, but her actions were missed by the cameras because it was too dark where she entered the river.
Improved lighting at Riverwalk is the next priority, said Gustafson.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014