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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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"If you're trying to improve the neighborhood, installing a flashing blue light is not the way." So says Andrew Byrne, 24, who has been documenting the camera's locations and types for his web site, www.manifestor.org. "It's like entering Iraq," he says, standing on the sidewalk in front of Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Mount Vernon, where he works. "The flashing lights militarize the neighborhoods."

Byrne and some friends have biked through the city, documenting the size, type, and location off all the cameras they could find, accumulating possibly the most detailed description of the city's surveillance system available to the public. Byrne, a self-described anarchist, cleverly archived his findings by using Google to map the locations of each site. At manifestor.org, each camera is listed individually by type: "dome camera," "flashing blue light," and "gun style, non-panning." "At this point we've found 61 individual locations." Byrne says. The site notes each location with a satellite photo of the neighborhood and an "x" marking the camera's location.

Byrne contends that though he began the project with no other purpose than the "idea of doing it for it's own sake," it has raised his awareness about the pitfalls of relying on cameras to mete out justice. "It's not just the invasion of privacy--we don't know what the people are doing who are watching," Byrne says. "If someone's arrested because of the cameras, it's not about what they've actually done, but about the accuracy of the camera itself. What's inside the picture is not the entire thing. Cameras don't know everything."

Byrne also sees the issue as of a matter of fairness. "If we want to be consistent, we should put the flashing lights in the Inner Harbor," he says. "Let the people with money know they're being watched too."

The BPD's Kristen Mahoney points to the openness of the monitoring process as a guarantee of fairness. "We have the virtual citizens on patrol watching" she says, "people from the community that are screened and trained, so the cameras aren't just watched by officers."

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