City uses cameras to combat illegal dumping
Photos have led to 48 convictions since 2009
Thomas Waugh, Division Chief, Permits and Code Enforcement, Special Investigation Unit of Baltimore Housing, downloads photo from a hidden camera. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun / March 20, 2012)
"That was his story," said city housing official Thomas Waugh.
At least, that was the man's story after one of the city housing department's surveillance cameras caught him ditching the commode along a Southwest Baltimore street. Waugh didn't believe the excuse for a second, and even if he had, dropping off a toilet would still qualify as littering. The man now faces criminal charges.
As head of the housing department's Special Investigations Unit, Waugh hears a lot of far-fetched stories. He also sees a lot of incriminating pictures. Since 2009, photos snapped by the city's array of "trash-cams" have led to 48 criminal convictions, resulting in fines, community service, even jail time.
City crews are now installing several more motion-activated cameras in areas beset by dumping. By the end of the month, 15 will be operational. These are separate from the blue-light police cameras that dot the city. More electronic eyes may be on the way: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposed budget, released Wednesday, includes money for 10 video cameras to document dumping.
Trash-filled lots and alleys have long been common in parts of Baltimore, and Waugh doesn't pretend that he and his nine investigators can eliminate the problem. But he says the cameras — which can be moved around as needed — provide a useful enforcement tool.
Images of license plates can prompt quick confessions, and the hope is that people's behavior will change as word gets out that discarding junk improperly can have real consequences.
It helps that some of those spied dumping don't exhibit much savvy. One man was warned about a camera by a passer-by. The man looked straight at the camera — click — and kept tossing debris from the bed of the pickup truck. Click, click, click. Charges are pending.
In another case, investigators visited the home of a man whose vehicle was photographed. He wasn't home, so they left word for him. Later, while reviewing more images from the camera, they saw his car again. The man had returned to continue dumping — this time with cardboard over his license plate.
The man received a 10-day suspended sentence, court records show, and was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service. But the dumping led indirectly to a much stiffer penalty: Because the conviction violated the man's probation, housing officials say, he was sent back to jail for two years.
The cameras have a deterrent effect, particularly at night, when the flash pops as a vehicle pulls up but before dumping can occur. But people rarely seem to notice them during the day, and that's fine, says Jason Hessler, assistant commissioner for litigation, whose lawyers work with Waugh's team.
"We're looking to catch people," Hessler said.
City crews sometimes purposely wait a while before hauling away debris dropped in a camera's field of vision. Junk tends to attract more junk. If someone is going to dump illegally, the logic goes, better for it to happen under the camera's gaze.
A license plate will lead investigators to a car's registered owner, who is legally responsible for trash that comes out of it. But the city tries to charge whoever actually commits the crime. After all, they say, owners may not know that a rogue employee — or relative — is bypassing the landfill or transfer station.
Large-scale littering occasionally occurs without benefit of a motor vehicle. Waugh said a camera once captured a man who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, transporting a refrigerator on a hand-truck.
On a recent weekday, Waugh and Hessler led a tour of three camera locations: a dead-end street in West Baltimore, an area under an elevated stretch of West Lafayette Avenue elsewhere in West Baltimore and a stretch of road in Southwest Baltimore. The officials asked that exact locations be withheld.
At the first stop, the camera was fixed to a pole at the back entrance to a construction firm, pointed at a railroad overpass. Its relatively hidden location has made it a popular dumping spot for years.
Waugh recalls that in 2009, when his unit was created from an environmental crimes unit formerly housed at the Department of Public Works, walking around the area was difficult because it was so choked with debris.
"There was a house dumped there — a house," Waugh said, marveling at the memory. Someone had demolished a rowhouse, transported the rubble in a rolloff container and emptied the contents near the bridge.