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Saved footage from Freddie Gray arrest and unrest limiting city's camera capacity

A decision to retain hours of CitiWatch camera footage of Freddie Gray's arrest and the subsequent unrest in the city has limited the current capacity of some CCTV cameras to three days.
A decision to retain hours of CitiWatch camera footage of Freddie Gray's arrest and the subsequent unrest in the city has limited the current capacity of some CCTV cameras to three days. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

A decision to save surveillance video of Freddie Gray's arrest and the subsequent unrest in the city has significantly reduced the storage capacity of some cameras on Baltimore's closed-circuit system — shrinking the window during which police may flag footage to help with criminal investigations.

Capacity on some of the city's 700 CitiWatch cameras has been reduced from 28 days to three, meaning footage of any illegal activity is wiped clean after 72 hours unless a police officer shows up to save it, city officials said. The capacity of other cameras has been reduced to a lesser degree.

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City attorneys made the decision to save the footage because it could prove critical in future litigation related to Gray's death or the crimes committed during the unrest, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said.

Spokesman Kevin Harris said the intention was "to make sure that all records pertaining to the entirety of the Freddie Gray incident are preserved."

Harris said officials examined all options to avoid interfering with CCTV surveillance or violating regulatory requirements and decided that cutting the capacity on some cameras was the best choice.

Other options, such as copying the information onto external hard drives or saving to a cloud-based storage system, were not feasible, he said, in part because they would involve temporarily stopping the cameras from recording, "potentially leaving a blind spot in the crime fight."

Harris said the city plans to spend $140,000 on new hardware for long-term storage. The city does not know when the new hardware will be in place, he said, but Rawlings-Blake "has ordered that all red tape be cut to expedite the process as quickly as possible."

Police have relied on CCTV footage to make arrests in more than 1,000 cases a year, according to data kept by the city.

Grant Fredericks, an instructor of video sciences at the FBI National Academy, said it's important to save footage from incidents such as Gray's arrest and the riots.

"That now becomes critical data," Fredericks said. "All of it is evidence, and the authorities should secure all of that information.

"If anyone is charged in the future and that evidence is allowed to be erased, then the defendant can argue that exculpatory evidence was lost. And if that is lost, because the managers of the system or the government that is maintaining the system failed to retain the evidence, then the defendant can argue that the prosecution is prejudicial because they allowed the evidence to be erased."

Fredericks said retaining even several thousand hours of footage should not disrupt the capacity of a modern city's CCTV system. Storage — on external hard drives or otherwise — has become cheap, he said, and should be in place before the need becomes critical.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said questions about storage capacity have come up during the debate over body cameras for police. He said the CCTV storage shortage shows a need to modernize Baltimore's digital capabilities.

"We don't want to have an incident where we need the data but we don't have it because we had nowhere to store it," he said. "That creates an emergency situation.

"Are we going to store it on a cloud? Are we going to store it on a server? Those are all conversations we need to have."

Harris declined to provide dates or locations for the footage the city has decided to retain on the CitiWatch system.

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Capt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman, would not say how many cameras have lost capacity or where they are located.

The city spends about $1.8 million annually to maintain the camera system. The money comes from the state and Maryland's casinos. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security helped get the CCTV system off the ground in 2005.

At a time of heightened concern about police brutality, CitiWatch has served as a source of evidence in instances in which officers have used force against suspects.

In January, cameras captured part of an incident in which a police officer who said she feared for her life shot a man during a struggle in Northwest Baltimore. In February, they recorded a man charging at police before being shot by officers.

In February 2012, surveillance video showed a police officer in Baltimore striking a man in the face during an arrest. After the footage came to light, police dropped assault charges against the man and suspended the officer.

City surveillance footage has also been key to investigations of violent crime.

In February 2014, police used cameras to track a suspect in the killing of Terry Junior Davis, a 48-year-old nurse who was found dead in his home.

Gray, 25, was arrested near the Gilmor Homes housing project in West Baltimore and placed in a police van on April 12. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody and died a week later.

His death spurred a week of protests and demonstrations. Then, on the day of his funeral, the city erupted in riots, looting and arson.

Six officers have been charged in Gray's arrest and death.

Police sought CCTV and private camera footage of the location where Gray was arrested and at locations where the van made stops.

That collection took days, as detectives learned more about the van's route. Police missed an opportunity to review footage recorded by a private camera at a convenience store where the van stopped because the system had taped over the recording by the time they asked for it.

Harris and Kowalczyk would not say when the capacity of city-owned cameras was reduced.

Fredericks said retention of the footage of the unrest could help police solve hundreds of investigations from that time period. He said outside analysts could help police process the data.

Fredericks said he helped police in Vancouver, British Columbia, review footage of the riots that broke out when the Boston Bruins beat the hometown Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.

Vancouver police had thousands of hours of footage but "didn't have the capacity to process all that data and examine it in an expeditious manner," Fredericks said. So they called in the Law Enforcement & Emergency Services Video Association, or LEVA, a nonprofit organization whose members work in forensic video analysis.

In two weeks, 52 LEVA analysts "tagged and identified" 15,000 criminal acts, Fredericks said — assaults, looting, fire-bombing and flipping a police car.

In some instances, analysts were able to identify masked people by finding them in other footage earlier in the day, when their faces weren't covered.

Vancouver police noted they had "recommended 1,263 charges against 365 suspected rioters" identified in part through the LEVA partnership.

Fredericks said Baltimore should find a solution to the city's storage problem and then call in LEVA or some other organization for backup.

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"They're dealing with so much video," he said. "It's not something a single agency or single entity can handle."

Jan Garvin, executive director of LEVA, said his organization would be "more than happy to help."

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