City surveillance camera system to expand

When Baltimore first installed crime cameras in 2005, they numbered fewer than 200 and were largely confined to high-crime areas.

Two mayors later, the number of cameras in the city's police surveillance system has quadrupled. Baltimore owns 583 and has access to feeds from more than 250 installed by various businesses.


Now that system is likely to become much larger.

The city's Board of Estimates agreed last week to create a database that will make it easier for businesses to give the Police Department access to their private security cameras. The result could be hundreds more cameras connected to the city's system.


"We're going to focus on even small people, like mom-and-pop stores," said Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "We've got to go do the outreach: 'Hey, do you have a camera? Would you like to help?'"

The city action comes as the Maryland Port Administration is enhancing its surveillance in Baltimore. The state agreed this month to spend nearly $700,000 in federal stimulus funds to upgrade the video system at terminals including North Locust Point, South Locust Point and Fairfield.

The new city database builds on the Police Department's current arrangement with several large organizations that have granted the police 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.

The new program, called CitiWatch Community Partnership, is being funded with a $53,000 grant from the Abell Foundation. The city will use the money, in part, to build the database through which the Police Department will have access to feeds from the cameras of businesses that opt to take part. The grant also will pay for outreach to businesses.

Officials stress that becoming part of the CitiWatch system is voluntary. And unlike the current feeds from Johns 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.

"If police know someone fled by foot up Belair Road, they can search the database for that and see where the cameras are," Brennan said. "Did the person jump in a car? Did they run into a house? Its eyes that are already there that we can take advantage of."

News of the program was met with interest from some business owners and skepticism from others.

"I'm conflicted by it," said Marco Squire, who owns the Gian Marco Menswear store on Charles Street in Mount Vernon. "In one way, I can see that it's a very, very good thing. In another way, I can see that it leads to a lot of privacy issues."


At Fulton Auto Sales in Southwest Baltimore, owner Ron Sizemore operates seven security cameras. He says he's a big supporter of the Police Department but is reluctant to enter into a footage-sharing partnership.

"If it's like anything else in this city, it'll have a tax attached to it," he says. "If they want to watch my business, they can put their own camera on the pole out front."

The city's cameras were installed during Martin O'Malley's tenure as mayor. The number of government cameras has grown steadily under his successors.

Rawlings-Blake's administration has been moving away from the blinking "blue light" cameras that became ubiquitous in some of Baltimore's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. The city has been taking them out of service and adding cameras that stand out less, officials said.

The program has been funded through grants as well as money seized from drug dealers, though city taxpayers have footed some of the bill as well.

The first 300 cameras cost about $10 million to install, with $3 million coming from the city budget and the rest from federal Homeland Security funds and money seized from drug dealers. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the city spends $1.4 million a year to operate the system.


The expanding camera program was an issue of concern for former State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who said the cameras resulted in few arrests for violent crimes. After studying the program for one year, Jessamy said the vast majority of those arrested were for drug offenses.

Nonviolent crimes still greatly outnumber violent crimes captured by the cameras, according to police data. In 2011, city cameras contributed to 1,236 arrests, of which 145 were for violent crimes, including robberies, assaults and illegal gun possession, the mayor's office said.

But administration officials point to a study of the city's downtown cameras conducted by the Urban Institute. It concluded the cameras had driven down crime in most areas and gave taxpayers a return of as much as $1.50 for every dollar spent on the system.

Guglielmi pointed to several cases in which the cameras have helped catch a violent criminal.

In July 2009, for instance, police were able to solve the murder of a 48-year-old woman in Southeast Baltimore because of the cameras, he said. A pole camera picked up a suspect removing a shotgun from his car, Guglielmi said. With the footage, police were able to search the vehicle, recovering three guns and charging Donte McCray, 25, with the murder. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year.

Public opinion toward video surveillance has changed significantly over the past decade, said Doug Ward, a former state police major who is director of the Johns Hopkins University's public safety leadership division.


In the early 1990s, the Maryland State Highway Administration placed cameras on major roads, Ward said, but refused to tell anyone.

"They were afraid of the public outcry," he said. "Now it's on the news every morning, so people can see traffic backups. It was a scary thing in the early '90s. Now it's accepted."