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Mobtown Beat

Private Eyes

New Surveillance Cameras To Be Installed in High-Crime Baltimore Neighborhoods

By Ruth Reader | Posted 4/6/2005

Diane Richardson’s family has owned the Richardson Farms produce stall in the Northeast Market on East Monument Street for the last 75 years, and she confesses it’s not like it used to be. “People used to come from around the corner, but most of the houses are boarded up now,” Richardson says. Her customer base has also diminished, primarily due to safety concerns. Recently, for example, she says drug dealers have moved into the Northeast Market.

“I guess they’re trying to get their last fling in before the cameras come,” she says with a laugh.

Baltimore is in the process of installing 80 security cameras in three of the most violent areas of the city in the hope of deterring crime. By May 31, approximately 24 cameras will be placed along East Monument Street, 24 will be placed in Park Heights, and 32 will be placed along Greenmount Avenue in Waverly. The cameras will perch on 13-foot-long rods extending from light poles, and they will have the ability to pan, zoom, and tilt to observe activity on the street. Live surveillance of the cameras’ footage will take place at a center nearby. Trained individuals, including retired police officers, will monitor the feed and will have a direct line to the Baltimore Police Department when they view suspicious conduct.

Though many community members from the East Monument Street area agree that the cameras will be good for the neighborhood, some are skeptical.

“I have mixed feelings,” Richardson says. She says the cameras sound promising but wonders whether they will truly deter crime.

Other surveillance-camera systems in Baltimore have reportedly been successful crime-reduction tools in the areas in which they have been employed. The Downtown Partnership, for example, has had surveillance systems in place since 1996 in various places in the city center; the nonprofit downtown booster organization has 80 cameras nestled into well-marked areas. Larry Lewis, director of the partnership’s Downtown Safety Coalition, says they have been a worthwhile enforcement tool, adding, “We wanted to send a message that we are in the area.” Downtown Partnership spokesman Michael Evitts estimates that they have helped reduce crime in the area by about 25 percent.

But with the cameras come privacy concerns, and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center say that surveillance cameras fail to truly reduce crime in urban areas, are subject to abuse by government and law-enforcement officials (in a position paper on video-surveillance, the ACLU cites a case in which a Washington, D.C., police officer used the cameras to gather information on patrons of a local gay club), and have a “chilling effect” on public life.

“In Britain, where surveillance cameras are widely used, they have not been found to have a significant impact on crime rates,” says Stacey Mink, director of development for the ACLU of Maryland.

Cédric Laurant, policy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, acknowledges that such cameras can be a useful tool in preventing petty crimes and theft but warns that camera surveillance systems in public places can impede on privacy and civil rights.

“The system can be justified to a point,” Laurant says, though he contends that the cameras often simply shift crime, rather than end it. For example, he points to British studies which showed that in areas with surveillance cameras crime decreased 30 percent to 40 percent; however, the studies also showed that crime was simply displaced to less-monitored areas nearby. Further, Laurant says, the cameras distance people from law enforcement and create a sense of distrust in the community.

“When you replace cops by video surveillance, people begin to fear authority,” he says. “There will be less faith in police officers because people will see them less often.”

Janet Levine, executive director of the Charles Village Community Benefits District, says that during a meeting with community members about the Greenmount Avenue cameras, police said they have plans to react to a possible shift in crime.

“We felt assured that the police department is understanding and prepared to handle [it],” says Levine, who noted that she does not think the cameras will equate to less police presence on the streets. Rather, she says, she thinks the cameras will allow police patrols to be more flexible and help them respond to calls more

Kristen Mahoney, executive director of the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, says the system will cost $2.9 million, “75 percent of which is coming from drug dealers—we’re taking seized funds and reinvesting them.” The city’s Board of Estimates unanimously approved the expenditure on March 16.

To quell fears that the cameras could violate the privacy rights of residents, Mahoney says that “supervision is in place,” to make sure that the cameras are used properly. She says that community members have been invited to assist in monitoring at the surveillance centers through a program called Virtual Citizen Patrol.

“We have to be open with community members,” she says. In addition, the police department is working with residents to determine the times when surveillance is most needed, based on neighborhood crime trends. Mahoney acknowledges that the cameras will not eradicate crime in the areas where they will be installed, but she says they will be helpful.

“Cameras in and of themselves are not the answer,” she says. “They only work if the police department is working with the communities to develop community safety programs. They are not the silver bullet.”

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