Surveillance cameras helpful, but no 'slam-dunk'

The Baltimore Sun

A police surveillance camera mounted on a pole rolled in September as a man emptied nine bullets into Deion Morris and five bullets into Channy Myrick, killing them both.

But Assistant State's Attorney Rich Gibson could not simply show the tape to jurors and end his case with a sure victory.

The suspect's face wasn't clear on the grainy image. More troubling was that the video proved that a witness had initially lied to police.

She first told detectives that the shooter was in a car, but bullet casings were scattered on the sidewalk, not in the street. Then, Gibson said, the video showed that "the witness wasn't standing where she said she had been standing."

The video helped detectives get a straight answer from the witness but also gave the defense attorney plenty of ammunition to impeach the woman's story. In the end, her initial description of the shooter generally matched what jurors saw on the tape, and they convicted the suspect on two counts of first-degree murder. He is serving life plus 40 years in prison.

When cameras were first deployed in Baltimore, officials told us they would help convince skeptical juries about a suspect's guilt and deter crime. Rather, the extensive and still expanding surveillance network has evolved into more of a way for police and prosecutors to better locate and question witnesses and suspects and stitch together otherwise disparate clues.

"I've never had a case in which a video was a slam-dunk," Gibson said.

This month, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley released a report on surveillance cameras used by the city of San Francisco and came to the same conclusion. They found that officials oversold the program as an easy way to capture crime on tape, put criminals in prison and deter violent crime.

"We find no evidence of an impact of the Community Safety Cameras on violent crime," the report says. "Violent incidents do not decline in areas near the cameras relative to areas farther away [and] we observe no decline in violence crimes occurring in public places."

Researchers did note a decrease in homicides within 250 feet of the cameras but an increase in killings "in areas far from the cameras" - indicating people simply went out of camera range to kill. The report also concludes, "We find no evidence of any effect of the cameras on drug incidents, or on prostitution, vandalism, and incidences described as suspicious occurrences."

However, the study did find "statistically significant and substantial declines in property crime within view" of the cameras.

The Urban Institute in Washington is conducting a similar study in Baltimore and two other cities and could issue findings in a matter of months.

Baltimore prosecutors and police have been at odds for years over the usefulness of the more than 300 police cameras trained on city streets.

The state's attorney's office says the cops hyped video surveillance as savior to the city's crime problem. Police argue the cameras are a crucial crime deterrent that allows them to watch areas that can't be continuously monitored by patrol officers.

City prosecutors handled 195 police cases in which surveillance cameras were mentioned in reports in September, the latest month for which statistics are available. There were guilty findings in 43 cases, including four homicides and 27 drug arrests, and 73 cases were dropped. Others are pending or resulted in probation.

Sheryl Goldstein, head of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, said Baltimore more than other cities monitors surveillance cameras in real time and sometimes catches criminals in the act. Cameras helped police identify witnesses to the first killing this year, she said, and in November an officer monitoring a live feed watched a woman being killed outside a downtown strip club.

"The entire incident was captured on video," Goldstein said. "The officers saw the fight start. They were able to zoom in as the suspect stabbed the woman." Detectives quickly detained witnesses and brought charges against the attacker. That is how I think the cameras have proved invaluable to this city."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's top prosecutor, said she believes the findings in San Francisco mirror what's happening here. "The footage is often used to point us in the right direction," she said, adding that residents tell State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy that, "rather than a blue box, we'd like Officer Friendly on the street."

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