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. Beth Manning, a member of the Fells Point Residents Association, 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.