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Blue Light Special

Life in a City Under Surveillance

Photos by Frank Klein
Greenmount and 28th Street
"I think [the camera is] good," Shionta Williams, 13, says. "I'm not doing anything wrong, so I'm not worried about them."
"If they put them here, they should put them everywhere," argues Bonnie, 45. "Why do they have to be here in this neighborhood? What's that about?"
Camera at Pennsylvania and North avenues
"They ain't doing nothing for nobody," says Alexander Ellis, 39. "They're just there to lock black people up for drinking beer."
Camera at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue

By Stephen Janis | Posted 8/17/2005

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Big Brother-is-watching clichés spring to mind, but once you get acquainted with the dizzying details of the Baltimore Police Department’s new citywide system of security cameras, Orwellian anxiety gives way to Kafkaesque stupor.

BPD’s chief of technical services, Kristen Mahoney, says four types of surveillance systems are operating in Baltimore, 178 cameras in all, each system using different technologies and being monitored at different locations. “We have a lot of tools at our disposal,” Mahoney says. “But the cameras are going up faster than we can monitor them.”

Twenty-eight microwave cameras, what Mahoney calls “top-of-the-line high-tech,” have been installed throughout the Inner Harbor and in police helicopters. (Mahoney says the cameras “can identify a car on the Key Bridge from the top of a building in the Inner Harbor.”) Then there are 50 closed-circuit cameras, deployed in May and paid for by a $2 million federal Homeland Security grant, along the Howard Street corridor and monitored in the basement of the Atrium Building on North Howard. The third batch consists of 80 cameras scattered around the Monument, Greenmount, and Park Heights neighborhoods, wireless units that were funded primarily by $2.9 million in “confiscated drug money,” Mahoney says. They are monitored by police officers, retired and non-, and residents at the Southeast and Northwest district police stations. The last and perhaps most visible electronic sentinels are the 20 so-called pod cameras, $20,000 units funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and affixed with flashing blue beacons. These cameras are not monitored: “Officers can use a football”—a remote monitoring device—“to monitor the pod cameras from a squad car,” Mahoney says. Though, she adds, “we do record everything.”

Taking inventory of this byzantine array of surveillance equipment doesn’t shed light on what it’s like to live with it. And like every incursion of technology into the fabric of our lives, how the cameras affect us depends on how they are used. Who is watching us and why? Are we willing to give up the privacy of open space, the ability to move around the city where and how we want unnoted, to protect against every threat, real and imagined? And if we make that concession, how do we know these cameras and those who watch them will live up to our best intentions ? Even in the aftermath of the July terrorist bombings in London, when that city’s vast network of surveillance cameras played a significant role in the apprehension of suspects, a camera pointed at your front yard or corner bar has a different demeanor than one aimed at a busy subway stop.

The people who live in the ever-widening scope of electronic surveillance in Baltimore, the people whose homes and porches and stoops and businesses fall under the gaze of electric eyes, are forced to consider these questions now.

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