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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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A series of empty rooms leads to the Baltimore Police Department's Watch Center, one of the city's monitoring locations, housed in the basement of the Atrium Building on North Howard Street. Inside, four workstations sit facing a large video screen that displays a mosaic of views: Lexington Market, the light rail station just below Saratoga Street, and several shots looking up Park Avenue.

As one of the cameras pans, dark squares appear on the screen, blocking what seems to be a large building. "Those views are pixeled to protect privacy," Mahoney explains. "We don't want to look into people's windows."

One of the monitors on duty, a retired state corrections officer who asked not be identified, sits at a workstation, using a joystick to turn the cameras and zoom in on people as they walk down the street. "It's better than TV," he claims. When asked what type of crimes he has witnessed, he echoes Alexander Ellis' assertion: "Mostly people drinking beer in public, or popping pills."

Twenty-eight days after the department placed cameras along Greenmount Avenue, Mahoney claims positive results. "Crime is down 20 percent in the Greenmount corridor over the same time last year," she says.

Still, a review of the available research on the effectiveness of closed-circuit surveillance indicates that, in the long term, the cameras might not to engender a sense of safety. A study by Jason Ditton, a professor of law at University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, compared Glasgow residents' sense of personal safety before and after similar cameras were installed. According to the resulting study, while residents initially thought the camera would make them safer, "when actual as opposed to prospective feelings of safety are compared over time, there is no improvement after installation of CCTV cameras."

Still, Mahoney points out, the cameras are popular with many residents. "Every time an article comes out about them, we get seven or eight requests for cameras in new neighborhoods" she says. "We want to make things better, not worse."

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