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Police say 8% of Baltimore's Citiwatch cameras aren't working

A CCTV camera linked into the Baltimore Police CitiWatch program is shown at Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore in this file photo.
A CCTV camera linked into the Baltimore Police CitiWatch program is shown at Gilmor Homes in West Baltimore in this file photo. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

About 8 percent of Citiwatch cameras in Baltimore don’t work, according to the Baltimore Police Department.

A recent count found 59 of the 744 closed-circuit cameras were not functioning, officials said, for reasons ranging from wireless signal interference and downed street poles to cameras simply reaching the end of their lifespan.

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That’s “about average” for the system, which sees cameras go offline on a regular basis and for a variety of reasons, said Detective Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman. But, he acknowledged, it’s also detrimental to crime investigations.

“The CitiWatch camera program is an important tool in our fight against crime,” he said. “When a camera becomes inoperable, we are no longer able to benefit from the technology.”

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Under new Chief Michael Harrison, the Baltimore police department's dirt bike violators task force will continue to target areas known for street riding.

Ganesha Martin, who last month took over the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice — which maintains the system — said it would be near impossible to have 100 percent of cameras operating at all times, given the size and complexity of the system. Still, she said, efforts are under way to improve the network, which she said is “critical to our ability to address public safety” in Baltimore.

“I requested a briefing on the current state of our cameras and our plans for the future within my first few weeks,” Martin said. “Of course it is our goal to have every camera up and running.”

Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the local police union, said nonworking Citiwatch cameras have long been a problem — the product of under-funding and neglect, he said.

“There are always multiple cameras down at any time and others that are functioning are not being adequately maintained,” he said. “Whenever you lose a tool in law enforcement, it will have a negative impact on our city.”

Mancuso said Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has told him that technology improvements are on the way for the department.

“I hope it’s sooner than later,” he said.

Silbert said the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and its camera vendor work every day to repair or replace malfunctioning cameras regardless of the cost, and “prioritize repairing cameras that are down by weighing the length of the outage along with current crime fighting needs.”

In one of the most wired cities in America, closed-circuit television cameras captured Freddie Gray's arrest and the police transport's van drive from Gilmor Homes to the Western District station. But there are gaps in the footage that's been released publicly.

Camera footage is used in an array of cases. At a recent Downtown Partnership meeting, a Baltimore police sergeant said that the camera system has been an important part of police work downtown.

Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office, said prosecutors always value footage — but that it is not necessary to pursue justice in many cases.

“Our attorneys always prefer the strongest arsenal of evidence to put forth the most compelling cases,” Saunders said. “However, when certain pieces of evidence are not available, we remain nimble and readjust so that we are still fully prepared for trial and to pursue justice.”

Silbert said there is no average cost for repairs, because of the range of different causes for camera failures. Sometimes $500 is enough, covering a technician going “up in a bucket truck to troubleshoot” a problem with a camera on a light pole, he said. A full replacement camera, meanwhile, costs about $1,300, he said.

Other problems, such as a break in the fiber optic cables for hardwired cameras, can cost many thousands of dollars to fix, he said — though those fixes also can bring multiple offline cameras back into service at once.

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“Some cameras are down because they are wireless cameras that rely on a signal from a hard-wired camera that is not working,” Silbert said. “So, there are locations in the queue for repair where one hardwired camera that will be repaired will bring an additional 3-4 back online.”

"They're trying to make people calm by saying, 'Don't worry, this is just an expansion of our CCTV program.' It's not," said Anne McKenna, a visiting assistant professor of law at Penn State University and a legal consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice on the issue of aerial surveillance. "This is not a camera pole that sits in one location and films people walking back and forth."

Baltimore received a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2017 to buy more surveillance cameras, gun-shot detection software and license plate readers.

At the time, officials said about 60 new Citiwatch cameras would be purchased with the funding.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who was City Council president when the grant was announced, said that he was “extremely pleased” by it, in part because “one of the most common requests I receive from my constituents is for more vigilance and more cameras in our neighborhoods.”

Young’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the current outages.

Drew Vetter, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice director at the time, said city officials would decide where to place the new cameras by comparing maps of where the most crime occurs with maps of the camera system.

“This will allow us to fill in those blind spots that exist currently,” he said.

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