Maryland officials weigh whether Pokemon Go is a public safety hazard

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
As Maryland leaders gather in Ocean City, they ask: What to do about Pokemon Go?

Maryland's political leaders gather every August to discuss the most pressing issues in governance; this year Pokemon Go is on the agenda.

The augmented reality game that has sent people exploring neighborhoods, congregating in public places and distractedly "hunting" digital creatures also creates a public policy conundrum for local governments. Armed robbers have preyed on preoccupied Pokemon hunters. In Baltimore, an engrossed player sideswiped a parked police cruiser while staring at his cell phone.

"There's an awful lot of questions that have burst on the scene about this game and the trend that it represents," said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "There's a real public policy dimension here. What does it mean for your liability? What does it mean for public safety?"

An hour-long session Friday at the Maryland Association of Counties' summer conference in Ocean City is devoted to "Gotta Catch 'Em All: Pokémon GO and the Public." The session is one of dozens at the three-day, beachside governance convention, but it's expected to be busy. 

"I'm pretty confident we're going to run out of time before we run out of things to talk about," Sanderson said.

Sanderson said that in addition to the obvious question about how to protect distracted players from themselves and criminals, augmented reality games inspire people to wander places they wouldn't normally go.  Overnight, inclusion in the game could transform a little-trafficked and minimally surveilled waste-water treatment into a busy and dangerous destination authorities couldn't control.

The the GPS-aided, mobile game launched in July by Niantic Inc. quickly swept the country, in the process irritated people who suddenly found Pokemon hunters dispatched to property.

Last week, a couple from suburban Detroit filed a class action lawsuit against the makers of the game after a "Pokestop" directed players to their private home.  The U.S. Holocaust Museum warned players that it was inappropriate to chase Pokemon hiding there. 

"What if there's a Pokestop in the county courthouse? Or if it's a school or a senior center?" Sanderson asked.

Law enforcement agencies across Maryland have responded to reports of suspicious activity, only to discover innocuous Pokemon Go players. Sanderson said public officials need to be prepared for whatever enhanced reality game comes next.

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