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Chamber's proposal for surveillance law

Certainly the four council members who are sponsors of the proposed Surveillance Law (21-05) are to be commended for their interest in public safety. However, it is the opinion of the business community that a different approach will best serve the interests of the shopping public and the commercial centers in Anne Arundel County.

The proposed legislation would require all retail centers of more than 15 stores to install surveillance cameras that cover at least 75 percent of the area used by the general public.

While the purported intent is to cover the parking areas, the proposed language could require the landlord to place cameras in tenant-occupied space--a most unusual situation. Further, the bill requires the video captured to be held for three days and made available to police officers, should they request it.

On the surface, the proposed law may seem rather innocuous to the layperson. On closer examination, there are many aspects that need to be more closely considered. For example, many of the centers were built twenty, thirty or more years ago. Camera placement depends on elevated poles to prevent vandalism and to gain visual perspective.

Installing these cameras requires installation of connecting wires (trenching through parking lots, sidewalks, etc.), construction of utility rooms in which to power and house the recording devices, as well as the installation of heating and cooling to maintain a consistent temperature for the equipment. Interestingly, the law is silent on the required resolution of cameras that may be used and whether "scanning" types of cameras are permissible.

The landlord may also become subject to increased liability exposure, as he/she must determine which of the public areas to cover to reach the 75 percent requirement.

At the present time, Anne Arundel County does not have a listing of all the centers that would be impacted, nor is there an estimation of the costs to comply with the law that would be borne by the owners of these commercial center owners. In addition, there is no designation of the county agency that would be responsible to manage compliance and answer questions, nor how much the selected agency's budget or personnel may need to be increased to administer the law.

The proposed legislation is a broad-brush approach to a problem that is most usually an isolated one. Most experts agree that the posting of notices in parking lots that surveillance is being conducted contributes as much to the diminution of crime as the cameras themselves, and yet the proposed law is silent on the placement of such signs.

Many centers currently have private security forces that are traversing the parking lots, providing "eyes and ears" to potential problems, acting as a visible deterrent. If this law is passed, will center owners by fiscal reality be forced to discontinue what is recognized as a more beneficial deterrent than cameras?

In researching this issue, I came upon the Center for Problem Oriented Policing (CPOP), funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and run by a former police chief who is also a Harvard Law School graduate. CPOP is geared to bringing all parties to the table in describing, analyzing, and developing programs to deal with problems such as crime in retail center parking lots.

I also learned that CPOP hired Dr. Paul Ratcliffe, a criminal science professor at Temple University, who has just completed the first draft of a publication tentatively titled, "Guidebook to the Use of Surveillance in Public Places." Unfortunately, this publication will not be released for another four to six months. However, one extensive research study on this issue found the following: "The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the analysis ... is that [closed-circuit television] is an ineffective tool if the aim is to reduce overall crime rates and make people feel safer.

The CCTV systems installed in 14 areas mostly failed to reduce crime (with a single exception), mostly failed to allay public fear of crime (with three exceptions) and the vast majority of specific aims set for the various CCTV schemes were not achieved. (Gill and Spriggs, 2005).

The Baltimore/Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce respectfully urges the Anne Arundel County Council to consider a substitute bill that would allow for the utilization of a Commercial Security Network (CSN) made up of representatives from retail centers across the county along with members of the police department and other law enforcement entities.

This group could begin the process of developing a complete listing of impacted centers, a sharing of information among centers as to best practices, as well gaining the expertise of such organizations as CPOP and Dr. Ratcliffe or similarly qualified organizations and/or individuals who have assiduously studied this aspect of public safety and criminal behavior.

To pass the currently proposed ordinance will cost a great deal of money, time, and effort for what most believe will not contribute significantly to an effective solution. Working together through a structured framework is the most prudent course of action and will begin the process that the council members and the business community most ardently desire -- increased public safety.

Walt Townshend

The writer is president and CEO of the Baltimore/Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce.

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