Baltimore County could create a registry of private security cameras under a bipartisan proposal from five council members who want to help police more quickly track down possible video evidence of crimes.
The bill would create a voluntary private security camera registry for property owners with devices pointed toward a public right-of-way, according to the proposal. The program would map where cameras are located to help detectives identify possible security footage in areas where crimes happened.
Council members will discuss the proposal and conduct a public hearing on it at their Feb. 11 work session.
The program is being proposed by Woodstock Democrat Julian Jones Jr. Co-sponsors include Oella Democrat Tom Quirk, Dundalk Republican Todd Crandell, Cockeysville Republican Wade Kach and Perry Hall Republican David Marks.
Pikesville Democrat Izzy Patoka said he’s planning to become a co-sponsor ahead of the vote. Middle River Democrat Cathy Bevins, the council chair, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“I’m supportive of any measures Baltimore County takes that helps to improve public safety,” Patoka said.
Under the proposal the county would waive alarm permitting fees for new alarm system installations — which start as low as $34 for homes and $113 for commercial buildings — that include private security or surveillance cameras if the owner signs up for the registry. The county would also waive fees for any updates to current alarm systems that include those cameras.
Program participants would receive two waivers for “false alarm” calls each year, which can cost residents $500. Registration would expire after two years, but residents would be allowed to renew their participation. Residents would only submit their contact information for program participation, Jones said.
Jones said his idea for the program was based on research of existing programs in Missouri and Lansing, Mich. In 2014, Baltimore City launched a similar program for property owners to be part of the CitiWatch Community Partnership. Philadelphia, San Jose, Calif., and Chicago are among other cities with similar private security camera registries or networks. Three Rhode Island towns initiated programs last year.
The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in 2014 saying the proliferation of surveillance cameras is threatening residents’ right to privacy. The report recommended “any private cameras that become part of a larger government network need to maintain the same standards and procedures that govern the network." The group has also questioned the relationship between some camera manufacturers and police.
Jones, however, said the program wouldn’t have direct access to camera footage. Registration records and any obtained footage, the bill states, would be kept “confidential to the extent permitted by law.” The bill states the county won’t solicit or use footage “in such a way as to effectively violate any person’s privacy.”
“I thought about people saying, ‘This is Big Brother and you’re trying to take over my security footage,’” Jones said. “But let’s make it clear that this is voluntary.”
Participants would have to ensure the registered camera never monitors any private property other than the participant’s property, according to the bill. Alan Zukerberg, president of the Pikesville Communities Corporation, questioned how the county would control that to ensure police don’t get access to footage of a house across the street from a registered camera.
The bill says obtained footage would be treated as if it’s from a county-owned camera, Zukerberg said, and what would that mean?
Obtained footage, according to the bill, would only be used to support “a legitimate law enforcement investigation." Does that mean it will only be used in criminal cases? Zukerberg asked.
“I think it’s well-intentioned and it has a good purpose, but maybe it needs to be fine-tuned to answer a number of questions that may arise,” Zukerberg said.
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Virginia Jones, president of the Woodlands of Deer Park Community Association, called the proposal “a great idea.” Her neighbors have security cameras, and she said officers used some of that footage to investigate the fatal shooting of Derrick Laurence Towe-Williams on Shenton Road in Randallstown last August.
The shooting happened “a couple doors from his home and it was someone he knew, so it was really hard on the family,” Virginia Jones said. County police eventually arrested Cory Dwayne Fennell and Markus Haggins on first-degree murder charges.
“We were very happy with that," she said. “If Julian’s bill had already been in effect, they would have been able to go right to source earlier instead of knocking on doors.”
John Noah, a member of the Eastfield-Stanbrook Civic Association, said the county already has a home camera network that helps the community fight crime. His “Project Lantern” organization connects Dundalk residents with county police whenever residential cameras capture crimes.
The council’s proposed registry follows 50 homicides reported in the county last year, which surpassed the previous high of 43 set in 1992, according to FBI data tracking violent crime since 1985. Eastern Baltimore County’s Dundalk and Essex precincts and the Wilkins and Woodlawn precincts on the county’s west side reported the most gun violence last year.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, has since worked with council to pass legislation reinforcing security at gun shops in an effort to reduce the number of stolen firearms used by criminals. He’s pushing public safety among his priorities for the Maryland General Assembly’s 2020 legislative session, and he recently unveiled a new approach to reduce violent crime.