City to remove 'blue light' crime cameras

The Baltimore Sun

Arguing that the technology requires too much manpower to be effective, Baltimore police are phasing out the first generation of blue-light cameras -- among the city's most visible crime-fighting tools.

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said the portable cameras, which represent about 18 percent of all crime cameras in the city, will slowly be replaced with more sophisticated closed-circuit units.

"There's a great deal more heavy lifting involved to make them effective," said Bealefeld, who called the portable cameras an "albatross" during a budget hearing this week. "That's something we've learned during our experience with camera deployment."

Baltimore has spent years building up a surveillance system that today includes 454 closed-circuit cameras, which are wired back to a monitoring center. The ones the city wants to phase out are its 102 "podds" -- portable overt digital display system -- cameras, which include the boxy, blue-light variety.

Police have complained for years about the limitations of the "podds," which must be monitored on site with a laptop-style controller. Police can also review video stored in the cameras, but they sometimes have difficulty retrieving the images.

"By virtue of their design they were meant to be a deterrent, to be a physical beacon in their neighborhood," said Bealefeld, adding that it takes a large commitment of personnel to make the cameras a preventive measure. "If they're going to be a deterrent, you have to have teeth in them."

The cameras, first installed at Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street in 2005, have been a polarizing element of the city's crime strategy from the start. Civil libertarians objected to them, as did Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who argued that they were ineffective.

Initial demand

But some neighborhoods clamored for the portable cameras because their large, blinking blue lights were seen as a crime deterrent. Kristen Mahoney, who helped build the camera system, said lights were later added to some closed-circuit cameras as well.

"Drug dealers tend to embrace technology more quickly than we do sometimes, and we've got to continually evolve to stay ahead of it," said Mahoney, who is now executive director of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Mahoney said that Chicago, one of the first cities to deploy a network of cameras to fight crime, is also updating its system so that more of the cameras are wired back to monitoring centers. Chicago police did not respond to a request for information yesterday.

Police stressed that the only cameras to be phased out are the "podds" and that they will likely be replaced with CCTV units. Bealefeld said police will continue to work with neighborhood leaders who feel a portable camera would be effective.

The portable cameras cost about $30,000 apiece -- significantly less than the more sophisticated closed-circuit units -- and officials said that at the time they were a good option to complement better systems in the works.

Bealefeld said police are working with IBM to build a network that is better integrated with city dispatch. He also said facial recognition cameras may be the next iteration of available technology.

How effective?

Opinions vary on how effective the current system has been. A Jessamy spokeswoman said yesterday that the cameras do not produce reliable evidence.

"They are an expensive operation, and for the purpose of prosecution and evidence they really have had very little effect on building more cases," said Margaret Burns, a Jessamy spokeswoman.

A camera positioned at Calhoun and Cumberland streets did help homicide detectives solve a November 2006 murder. In that case the footage documented an assailant as he used a tree branch to bash a man sleeping on a park bench.

The victim then fell to the ground, and the suspect left him for dead.

Homicide detectives found the assailant's cell phone and located his sister. Though the footage was hard to make out, police said, she was able to identify her brother as a suspect.

Police spokesman Sterling Clifford offered recent examples of how the closed circuit cameras were used to help police further investigations -- even if the video never winds up in court.

On May 11, camera monitors spotted a man walking in the 200 block of East Lombard Street with a handgun around 2 a.m., he said. The man and another person connected to him were arrested and charged with illegal possession of a handgun.

On the same day, police responded to a shooting on the 2700 block of Monument St. A camera showed the argument that led up the shooting and allowed police to narrow their investigation to a suspect who was later charged with three counts of attempted murder and first-degree assault.

Positive results

But the effectiveness of the "podds" cameras seems to be more limited than the CCTV cameras. Clifford said outdoor crime in a 28-day period after a portable camera is installed falls on average by about 7 percent when compared with the 28-day period before the camera goes up.

"It has made a difference in my neighborhood," said Viola Bell, president of the United Hope Community Development Corp., who has lived on the 3500 block of Virginia Avenue -- near one of the portable cameras -- for 18 years. "I know for a fact that the activity that used to be on that corner doesn't exist any more." But Paul Quinn, a past president and current board member of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, is less sure. There was an uproar in the community in 2006 when a camera was installed at Montgomery and William streets.

In the subsequent months, two crimes -- including a mugging -- took place near the camera. Quinn said the video from the cameras provided no help in solving the crimes.

"The camera really didn't prevent it, nor did it help identify any suspect," Quinn said. "We did come to the conclusion after that camera had been put up that they were not the answer for crime deterrence."

Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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