LONDON -After The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore last month to see if the city bears out the images on "The Wire," The Baltimore Sun sent police reporter Justin Fenton to London. This is the last in a series of articles comparing attitudes, crime and policing in London and Baltimore. For more observations, visit baltimoresun.com/twocities.
- In one of the most-watched boroughs in the most-watched city in the most-watched country in the world, Rob McAlister has a message for Baltimore officials: It's not about the cameras.
pppAmong the millions of people passing up and down the streets of Westminster, a dense borough in central London, there are thieves, pickpockets and drug dealers, and finding them by scanning the hundreds of cameras is like trying to spot a raindrop that differs from the rest.
McAlister, the Westminster city coordination manager who helped Baltimore set up its network of closed-circuit television cameras, says cameras must be incorporated into a broader city management strategy in which intelligence-sharing allows camera operators to be investigators and not night watchmen.
"We don't have a strategy for cameras any more than we have a strategy for a police car. You have a city management strategy, and the CCTV or police car is a tool in the box, to achieve the overall strategy," said McAlister. "It's not the CCTV that makes the crime go. Without an overall plan, what you end up with is very expensive recording equipment."
Five years after launching a system that cost at least $5 million and continues to grow, Baltimore claims successful results - but is still trying to work out the kinks.
McAlister gives former Mayor Martin O'Malley high praise for his research into CCTV and says Baltimore went big, buying some of the highest-quality equipment available at the time. With about 500 city-controlled cameras today, Baltimore has nearly as many per capita as Britain.
But he is critical of the way Baltimore implemented the cameras. He said cameras were erected in the middle of problem areas, which seemed to make sense. But it sent drug dealers scattering, and police scrambling to build new intelligence. Meanwhile, pushing dealers to new corners led to an increase in turf battles - effectively stoking more crime that police were less prepared to combat.
McAlister is also emphatic in his dislike for Baltimore's notorious blinking blue light cameras that dot the horizon in the city's most downtrodden areas, which he describes as high-tech scarecrows.
"The absolutely fundamental recommendation that was in 50-point font was, 'Get rid of the bloody blue lights,' " he said.
In an interview, O'Malley, now governor, concedes that during his tenure, the Police Department never fully embraced the new tool and integrated it into its operations.
"One of the challenges we encountered, and I think this is true of police culture worldwide, is that while drug dealers are quick to adopt and use new technology, law enforcement is very slow," O'Malley said. "I still think that there's a lot more that we can do with the cameras, and I think it depends on the cameras becoming a routine part of law enforcement rather than an afterthought when you run out of other leads."
Current city officials say that under Mayor Sheila Dixon, the Police Department and camera operators have taken the next step forward, increasingly working together to aid patrols and build more effective cases. Since a central watch center opened in December 2008, cameras have aided in 1,600 arrests, about half of them in the downtown business district - a 22 percent increase from the prior year.
A yet-to-be-published study by the Urban Institute credits cameras with a drop in downtown crime, though it also notes an increase in violent crime in a buffer area just beyond view of the lens.
"While there are mixed feelings about whether or not displacement occurs as a result of cameras, many feel that Baltimore is reaching a point of camera saturation so that there are very few places left to which criminals can displace," concluded the researcher, Nancy G. La Vigne.
With 30 years in the CCTV business, Westminster has cautionary tales and recommendations, and as networks grow in the U.S., McAlister believes public opinion and misguided strategies in some areas of the U.K. will lead to a scaling back of cameras there. Newspapers here often feature unfavorable accounts of misuse of cameras by local authorities.
"At one time, CCTV was the big thing. Now, people are starting to question it," McAlister said. "Does it work? Is it really defeating crime?"
It's often said that there are 4 million cameras in Britain, but that number is closer to 60,000, according to Big Brother Watch, a grass-roots anti-CCTV group that conducted an extensive review of the country's local authorities. Still, cameras have generated much debate about whether the cameras serve an important function or are a wasteful intrusion into citizens' lives, with many studies concluding that they don't provide enough bang for the buck.
Westminster's cameras are monitored from a watch room behind a nondescript door inside a shopping center, past a corridor lined with pipes and metal lockers where retailers hold overflow merchandise. Inside the watch room, there are about 45 screens against the wall, manned by three employees.
McAlister showed a series of clips in which CCTV was effective. One captured men fighting outside of a pub - and monitoring the situation allowed police to send an appropriate response and find the instigator. In another clip, a man plucks items out of a purse as an oblivious young couple nuzzle against a wall in an area where police were seeing a rash of thefts. Another shows a woman, whom police knew to be dealing drugs, discreetly passing gel caps to a man walking beside her. The drugs were stored in her mouth and, on camera, it looks as if the pair are sharing gum.
In each instance, McAlister says, police passed on intelligence instructing monitors what to be on the lookout for.
"CCTV is always kind of looked at post-events. A victim of crime reports that his belongings have been stolen, police a couple of hours later contact us and say, 'Do you have anything at this hour and this time?' Already the perpetrator is gone," he said. "What we tried to do with this system is see how we can work proactively with police to nail the criminal at the scene as it's actually happening. That takes a lot of partnership between police and ourselves."
It's not all about crime, and not every disruption merits a police response. For example, monitors were noticing many people urinating on public streets as bars let out, and deployed portable toilets at peak hours. While their crime strategy revolves around "hot spots," McAlister joked that the toilets address "wet spots," and monitoring helps deploy appropriate resources.
O'Malley stopped by Westminster as part of a tour in 2005, when he was asked by London officials to demonstrate CitiStat, his award-winning city management tool. It began a series of communications between Baltimore and London officials that would continue for the next several years. Baltimore officials also looked to Chicago and Jerusalem, among other places, in trying to sort through best practices.
For O'Malley, the cameras brought a deterrent effect and added more eyes on the street. As for comments that the cameras merely displaced crime, O'Malley acknowledges "that's partly true," though he saw a benefit in moving drug dealers to other areas.
"When [the dealers] go around the corner, they also may confront a citizenry that's not as demoralized as the citizenry that was in an open-air drug market and lived with it for 20 years and had given up calling the police," he said.
"I think the greatest proof to whether or not they work is the degree to which they were embraced by neighbors, who said things were better than they were before."
Sheryl Goldstein, director of Dixon's Office on Criminal Justice, said that in recent years a new camera grid has been established in Southwest Baltimore, and officials added additional cameras at the Inner Harbor and opened an upgraded central watch center on North Howard Street. The cameras are now used more proactively in investigations, though they remain strictly a crime-fighting tool.
"The O'Malley administration did a fantastic job of getting the cameras up, which is not a small undertaking, and we've focused on making that the strongest crime-fighting tool that we can," Goldstein said.
She said the city is also exploring new technologies that would integrate the cameras with the city's 911 system and gunshot detection systems, triggering the cameras to point toward the area of emergency calls and gunfire.
In 2007, there were reports that the blue light cameras would be taken down. But Goldstein said the only thing coming down is the camera system attached to them -- replaced with more modern cameras.
"The blue lights are staying up," Goldstein said. "In some extraordinary instances, we've turned them off if there was a consensus among the community that they wanted them off, but they're meant for people to know they're there."
McAlister says the blue lights simply push crime into areas out of the view of the cameras - and law enforcement. And if that is the intention and is successful, McAlister argues, what good are the cameras?
"Why not just put up a blue light?" he asks.
Map shows where Baltimore has put the cameras CitiWatch center monitors. PG 10