City expands surveillance system to include private cameras of residents, businesses

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This expand­ing “vol­un­tary” sur­veil­lance net­work is a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship, allow­ing police detec­tives access to video footage in most loca­tions only where crimes have already occured. Such net­works can­not guar­an­tee to pre­vent crime; they record crime.

Baltimore’s Citi­Watch video sur­veil­lance pro­gram has expand­ed over the past eight years from an ini­tial instal­la­tion of 50 stand­alone cam­eras to more than 600 net­worked closed-cir­cuit cam­eras, pro­vid­ing live video feeds around the clock

The Mary­land Trans­porta­tion Author­i­ty (MTA) con­tract­ed with Axis Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a com­pa­ny con­sult­ing on video sur­veil­lance net­works around the globe.  “It brings them crys­tal clear images, both in real-time and record­ings. It makes it pos­si­ble for any autho­rized per­son to access rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from any­where, at any time.”

Bal­ti­more is expand­ing its pub­lic sur­veil­lance net­work to include pri­vate secu­ri­ty cam­eras that city offi­cials hope will quadru­ple the num­ber of dig­i­tal eyes on neigh­bor­hoods and make res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers feel more secure.

City offi­cials on Thurs­day launched a pro­gram two years in the mak­ing that gives police quick­er access to the hun­dreds of pri­vate cam­eras mount­ed out­side of busi­ness­es and homes around Bal­ti­more. The vol­un­tary pro­gram allows prop­er­ty own­ers to be part of the Citi­Watch Com­mu­ni­ty Part­ner­ship, which maps where cam­eras are locat­ed and points detec­tives to avail­able secu­ri­ty footage in areas where crimes have occurred.

I think we can instant­ly quadru­ple the eyes we have on the street,” May­or Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake said.

The idea has been float­ed in indi­vid­ual neigh­bor­hoods in the past. Over the sum­mer, res­i­dents in Butch­ers Hill, fed up with break-ins and rob­beries, talked about cre­at­ing a data­base of homes with secu­ri­ty cam­eras that detec­tives in the Police Department’s South­east­ern Dis­trict could access to help solve prop­er­ty and street crimes. Butch­ers Hill Asso­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Beth Man­ning said the city’s new part­ner­ship appears to be what res­i­dents had in mind.

It makes “per­fect sense,” she said, for the city to cre­ate such a data­base for res­i­dents to join and inves­ti­ga­tors to be able to use as a resource.

When crime cam­eras were first installed in Bal­ti­more in 2005 under then-May­or Mar­tin O’Malley, they num­bered few­er than 200 and were large­ly con­fined to high-crime areas. The city’s net­work has grown to 696, which includes cam­eras at the East Bal­ti­more Devel­op­ment Inc. project and sur­round­ing the Horse­shoe Casi­no.

In 2012, the Abell Foun­da­tion fund­ed the Citi­Watch Com­mu­ni­ty Part­ner­ship with a $53,000 grant. The city’s Board of Esti­mates agreed at the time to cre­ate a data­base of pri­vate secu­ri­ty cam­eras that police could request access to. The new pro­gram took years to launch because the city’s infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy office had to build a sys­tem for the project, the may­or said.

The new city data­base builds on the Police Department’s arrange­ments with sev­er­al large orga­ni­za­tions that have grant­ed the agency access to their secu­ri­ty cam­eras. Offi­cers mon­i­tor vis­i­tors to Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal, rid­ers on Mary­land Tran­sit Admin­is­tra­tion bus­es and shop­pers at Har­bor­place and The Gallery down­town, among oth­er loca­tions.

Offi­cials stress that becom­ing part of the Citi­Watch sys­tem is vol­un­tary and — unlike the cur­rent feeds from Hop­kins and the MTA — police offi­cers will look at footage from the expand­ed pri­vate sys­tem only after they receive a report of a crime in the vicin­i­ty. The police will not be able to view a live feed from the new­ly signed-up pri­vate cam­eras, offi­cials said.

The data­base will act as a direc­to­ry of cam­eras with infor­ma­tion on where each is locat­ed, its own­er and how long footage is retained. The list­ings will then be built into an inter­ac­tive map. When a crime occurs, police can imme­di­ate­ly pin­point what cam­eras are near­by. Prop­er­ty own­ers can reg­is­ter to be includ­ed in the net­work by going to citiwatch.baltimorecity.gov. They can drop out of the net­work at any time, city offi­cials said.

Bal­ti­more Police Com­mis­sion­er Antho­ny W. Batts said the new pro­gram strength­ens two areas in which police are try­ing to improve: tech­nol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions.

Bal­ti­more was a pio­neer­ing city when it came to the cam­era pro­gram,” said J. Eric Kowal­czyk, a city police spokesman. “This is one more advance­ment of that lev­el of inno­va­tion.”

Philadel­phia, San Jose, Calif., and Chica­go are among oth­er cities that have sim­i­lar pri­vate secu­ri­ty cam­era reg­istries or net­works. In St. Louis, the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union released a report this month say­ing the pletho­ra of sur­veil­lance cam­eras is threat­en­ing res­i­dents’ right to pri­va­cy. The report rec­om­mend­ed that “any pri­vate cam­eras that become part of a larg­er gov­ern­ment net­work need to main­tain the same stan­dards and pro­ce­dures that gov­ern the net­work.”

Bal­ti­more offi­cials say the new net­work of pri­vate cam­eras will not intrude on people’s pri­va­cy because the gov­ern­ment or police can­not con­nect to res­i­dence or busi­ness cam­eras or access those video feeds in real time.

James Ham­lin became the first prop­er­ty own­er to sign up for the part­ner­ship Thurs­day. Four years ago, Ham­lin opened the Avenue Bak­ery at Bak­er Street and Penn­syl­va­nia Avenue in West Bal­ti­more.

He grew up near­by and remem­bered when he saw the Temp­ta­tions and Ste­vie Won­der walk­ing on Penn­syl­va­nia Avenue, which was Baltimore’s bustling nightlife dis­trict. Years lat­er, the area declined into one of the city’s more noto­ri­ous open-air drug mar­kets, where deal­ers sold hero­in out of stores and held busi­ness­es hostage.

Over the past decade, police and busi­ness­es have cleaned up the neigh­bor­hood sig­nif­i­cant­ly. After Ham­lin retired from a long career with UPS, he bought the vacant and dilap­i­dat­ed Bak­ers Hard­ware build­ing and ren­o­vat­ed it into a bak­ery, where he serves cap­puc­ci­nos, espres­sos and the “Poppay’s Rolls” he is known for. He com­mis­sioned murals on his prop­er­ty of civ­il rights activists and famous enter­tain­ers who once fre­quent­ed Penn­syl­va­nia Avenue, and affixed secu­ri­ty cam­eras on every cor­ner of his busi­ness.

While the cam­eras have nev­er caught a seri­ous crime in progress, they did cap­ture a man steal­ing brand-new trash cans from behind the build­ing just after Ham­lin opened.

He said he believes the main busi­ness strip can return to its hey­day if shop­pers and busi­ness own­ers feel safe. The Citi­Watch part­ner­ship, he said, is a good step toward that end.

It is impor­tant that peo­ple and tourists and that the com­mu­ni­ty itself feels safe,” Ham­lin said.

Baltimore’s grow­ing net­work of pub­lic sur­veil­lance cam­eras was first viewed as a deter­rent, with blink­ing blue lights that became ubiq­ui­tous in some crime-rid­den neigh­bor­hoods. The city has been tak­ing the cam­eras out of ser­vice over the last few years and adding ones that stand out less, offi­cials said. The change has hap­pened as such cam­eras seem to be every­where and are eas­i­ly acces­si­ble and afford­able for res­i­dents to buy and use.

Now we need res­i­dents and busi­ness­es across our city to sign up,” Rawl­ings-Blake said.