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Denver, others taking interest in Baltimore's surveillance system

BRIAN WITTE, The Associated Press | October 22 2006

BALTIMORE - It is a fast and sneaky handoff: a drug dealer looks both ways, reaches into a knapsack and passes something under his leg to a man sitting next to him on stairs along a city sidewalk.

The Baltimore Police Department captures it all on video, zooming in close on the men through a surveillance camera mounted on a streetlight pole. The employee monitoring the sale calls an officer on the beat, who arrests Melvin Scott after finding cocaine in his bag.

Scott initially denied owning the bag, but pleaded guilty last month and received a six-month sentence for attempting to distribute cocaine. Busts such as his have helped generate interest in other cities for the surveillance system, because it can give police a better view of illegal activity in troubled neighborhoods with live monitoring.

"Because of the camera, we can actually show that that was his possession," Lucy McKeldin, a retired officer who has returned to work behind a camera, said about Scott's bag, which held 17 vials of cocaine.

The surveillance system consists of about 300 cameras with another 100 planned. There are about 80 portable cameras with an internal hard drive that stores digital video for up to five days. There also are about 220 fixed closed-circuit cameras that routinely sweep areas and can be manually controlled by an operator in a police station.

Other police departments have been impressed by how Baltimore put its first 55 cameras in place without privacy lawsuits in just 18 months and has yet to face a lawsuit. The city started using the cameras in May 2005.

Police say crime is down about 15 percent in neighborhoods with cameras.

But enthusiasm for the surveillance system has dimmed at the city prosecutor's office because many cases involving cameras have had to be dropped. Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy said the quality of the images hasn't been what she hoped. She also said many of the arrests resulting from cameras are for minor crimes and small drug busts. For the most part, the cameras haven't been helpful in violent crime cases, she said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said that kind of criticism indicates many questions remain about the effectiveness of cameras.

"I think you need to bring in the serious social scientists, people who aren't running for office, to do real studies," Rotenberg said.

Between December and July, about 40 percent of 600 charges resulting from cameras had to be dismissed, the state's attorney's office said, many because of insufficient evidence stemming from poor image quality and a lack of physical evidence.

Problems arise when cameras are running automatically without a person to focus in on a crime, and the video only captures a fragment of what happened, Jessamy said. Even with good video, Jessamy said police still need physical evidence.

"They're perceiving the cameras as the be-all and the see-all, and it's not," Jessamy said.

Antonio Gioia, a prosecutor for the city's narcotics division who has handled cases involving cameras, said they are a helpful tool, but he believes significant crime cuts will only come with more focus on job training and drug treatment.

"They are tools in law enforcement, but the public should understand there are limits to what prosecution can achieve by itself," Gioia said.

Gioia also has heard that criminals are just moving their business to parts of the city where there aren't any cameras, although it's not clear where they're going.

Nevertheless, Baltimore's system is getting attention. Philadelphia Mayor John Street stopped by in April to see the system, and voters approved a referendum there in May to install cameras. Philadelphia recently started a pilot program with two cameras, and there are plans to expand. Officials from Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; New York; Tampa, Fla., and other cities also have visited, said Kristen Mahoney, who heads the Baltimore police's technical services division.

Mahoney said privacy lawsuits have been nonexistent largely because residents in the drug-scarred areas are tired of the crime that has plagued them for decades. "They are willing to try anything," Mahoney said.

The cameras have been warmly embraced by residents in Janice Jacobs-Hudson's neighborhood in East Baltimore, where drug dealers, addicts and trash dumpers besieged the area for years. Jacobs-Hudson, president of the Ashland Avenue Association, said crime has dropped since police installed a camera over a block that once bustled with dealers.

"Within two weeks, you could actually see the difference," said the 49-year-old nurse assistant, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years.

Police monitor the cameras based on periods when crime is most common. The cameras record 24 hours a day, whether they are monitored or not. Cameras watching critical infrastructure downtown are watched 24 hours a day.

Mahoney, who visited London at Mayor Martin O'Malley's request to study its camera surveillance system, said Baltimore observers came away with the idea to have officers monitor the cameras, using information gathered from them to establish crime trends and patterns. The importance of technology - having cameras that can pan, tilt and zoom - also was evident in the London system.

The cameras have stirred mixed feelings in some community leaders. Debra Evans, a board member of the Better Waverly Community Organization, said every community should have a say in whether cameras are used on their streets. To her, the flashing blue lights on some cameras send a signal that these are dangerous communities. She doesn't want them near her home.

"It's a stigma to a poor neighborhood," she said.

The first 300 cameras cost about $8 million, with about $2 million the money coming from federal homeland security grants for the cameras that monitor downtown infrastructure for potential terrorism activity. A large portion of the other costs have come from assets seized from drug dealers. The additional cameras will cost about $3 million.

 

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