Anne Arundel county executive shuts down in-house surveillance operation

This room in the Arundel Center was home to a surveillance operation that included 500 cameras.

On her first full day on the job, the new Anne Arundel County executive shut down a surveillance operation inside the county office building that included 500 cameras recording minute-by-minute activity in and around numerous county government facilities.

County Executive Laura Neuman said she became "suspicious" upon discovering the surveillance equipment, and called law enforcement officials about the operation, which was conducted from a small, unmarked room at the Arundel Center complex that few seemed to know about.

The computers, filled with images of building lobbies, front entrances, elevators and other common areas, were manned by a contractor, who was paid by the police department but reported to the county executive's office, Neuman said.

She said she thought the police should handle such security issues. Law enforcement officials did an immediate sweep of executive offices on the top floor of the Arundel Center, county council offices on the first floor and even women's restrooms. No improper monitoring was discovered.

The investigation is continuing, and Neuman vowed Monday to find the location of every camera.

"The intention is to understand and unravel what was happening in that office and find out what kind of work was being done, and redirect that work in a more appropriate way," Neuman said.

The incident spotlights scars and distrust left behind from a previous administration rocked by scandal. Neuman was appointed county executive following the departure of John Leopold, who resigned after being found guilty of misconduct in office that involved using public employees to perform political and personal tasks.

The new executive said she is taking extra care to rebuild trust in government and emphasize transparency.

"Number one for us is restoring the public's confidence in the executive branch of government in Anne Arundel County," said Neuman.

Neuman was alerted to the cameras when the contractor monitoring them greeted her in the parking lot on her first day. She wondered how he knew she had arrived. She asked him about his job, and he showed her the surveillance room.

"I thought it was unusual," Neuman said. "I saw cameras monitoring activity all over the county. I would think something like that would be handled through the police department rather than an unmarked office on the first floor of the Arundel Center."

Neuman declined to identify the contractor. William Hyers, who said he was fired that day, told The Sun on Monday that he was the person monitoring the cameras. A county spokesman confirmed Hyers was let go but would not discuss why, citing personnel issues.

Hyers said he believes he was caught up in politics and "gossip." Last year, Hyers was accused by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland of accessing police records to try to gather information on a community activist who had been critical of Leopold. Hyers denied that allegation Monday.

Hyers also said there was nothing improper about the surveillance. He said he was working under the jurisdiction of the police department and provided monthly reports.

Justin Mulcahy, a spokesman for the county police, said the department received a running log pertaining to maintenance issues but did not receive "status updates" as to what was observed on the cameras. He said the department had the ability to request footage from cameras for law enforcement purposes.

"Nobody ever asked me about the camera system," said Hyers, a retired police officer. "If they had, I would have shown them everything. Instead, I was escorted out of the building after years with the county."

Several County Council members said they weren't aware of the surveillance room until asked about it by Neuman. Councilman David Fink, a Pasadena Republican, said the issue should continue to be investigated.

"I just wonder why this thing is in the Arundel Center," Fink said. "I just think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered."

Councilman Dick Ladd, a Severna Park Republican, also said it is important to make sure the cameras are used appropriately.

"I think that surveillance cameras, when done appropriately, are OK," he said. "There are lines that we can go over. I don't know if we crossed those lines."

Council Vice Chairman John J. Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, said he didn't learn about the cameras until last week but he said he doesn't have a problem with their placement in county facilities. Grasso said that in his two years on the council, he didn't recall voting on any actions related to the security cameras.

"To me, I think it's a good thing," Grasso said. "They should be out there. As long as people aren't doing anything wrong, there's nothing to be afraid of. There should be cameras wherever they need to be and sound wherever there needs to be sounds. … This is a government facility. This isn't someone's house. To me, I think cameras are free game anywhere in a government facility."

Still, Grasso said the issue going forward is an administrative matter and should be up to the county executive, who runs operations.

"Whatever she finds fit to do is on her," Grasso said.

Neuman said investigators have secured computer monitors, hard drives and files. They changed the locks on the door to the office that monitored activity on the cameras and will use special technology to look at stored files, county officials said.

The cameras are still on, but the computer system to monitor the devices has been shut down until the investigation is complete. An additional 300 cameras in places such as courthouses and police stations are operating still and being monitored by police.

Neuman said the cameras were paid for with a grant to the county from the Department of Homeland Security. She said she still is trying to determine if county money was also used to fund the devices, and how long the cameras and surveillance room had existed.

P. Thomas Shanahan, the county's police chief from 1998 to 2006, said the first cameras were installed during his tenure "to protect property and people." Shanahan said some of the cameras were installed in response to thefts.

"Any novice security expert would tell you that cameras are a great deterrent," Shanahan said.

Neuman said she isn't opposed to cameras in public areas for security reasons. Once the investigation is completed, all monitoring of cameras will be done by the intelligence unit of the police department, county officials said.

Many jurisdictions use cameras for security. There are 600 cameras on streets in Baltimore, primarily for the city's Citiwatch program. An additional 123 cameras installed before Citiwatch was created monitor City Hall and other public buildings.

A Howard County spokesman said the county maintains video cameras at most county-owned buildings and facilities, including those operated by the Police Department, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Colin Starger, a University of Baltimore assistant professor of law, said countries worldwide have accepted video surveillance to varying degrees. Much of London, for example, is under video surveillance. Ultimately, Starger said, a society, or a community in the case of Anne Arundel County, should question the effectiveness of such a program.

Too much oversight could discourage healthy aspects of American society, because individuals may feel hesitant to participate in a protest or criticize or question the government "if you have to worry about the eye in the sky," Starger said. "I don't think anything is inherently wrong with it, but it's the kind of thing people should question. Are we willing to trade off?"

An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said the group is not opposed generally to cameras in public areas of municipal buildings for security purposes. David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Maryland chapter, did raise questions about the number of cameras in Anne Arundel and why so many were needed.

He also said Neuman was right to show concern about the cameras' monitoring.

"It would certainly set off alarm bells for me," Rocah said. "It raises questions about oversight, purpose and if there is a legitimate reason for it."

Neuman said she will reveal findings of the investigation as it is completed.

"I believe in candor and I do believe in transparency," she said.