Cameras to watch streets of city Police will monitor videos from 200 downtown locations

January 20, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Within a year, anyone who walks through downtown Baltimore could be under the watchful eye of 200 video cameras, to be installed on virtually every street corner and monitored by city police.

In a scenario that might be found in a futuristic movie script, city officials say the cameras will help police see streets they cannot always patrol and help prosecutors build solid cases against elusive criminals.

The initial $58,000 pilot program, financed by the Downtown Partnership, an organization that promotes businesses, starts with 16 cameras -- two of which are videotaping now -- on streets around Lexington Market.

The idea of government watching the citizenry go about its daily routine is raising some concern among civil libertarians and defense lawyers, but even they say the city is not infringing on constitutional rights.

"Most people said they would much rather have enhanced safety than worry about cameras," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "I know that some people get nervous of Big Brother, but I think everyone wants us to make Baltimore safe. This is a giant step toward doing that."

The Video Patrol Program, as it is called, has $40,000 in private grant money already in place to begin the larger job of installing cameras all over downtown, nearly two on each of 106 city blocks. The installation is expected to be completed by next year.

"People can really feel safe when they come downtown to do business," said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. "We are doing what we can to provide a safe and prosperous commercial district."

Shoppers and merchants at Lexington Market, where the cameras were unveiled yesterday, said they welcomed the additional security.

"I don't mind a bit," said Norkeita Beekham, who sells pocketbooks at a market stall. "If you are not doing anything wrong, what do you have to worry about? The camera is for your protection."

And added safety can come none too soon for merchants. On Tuesday, across the street from the main entrance to Lexington Market where cameras will soon be located, a man burst into a beauty supply store and fatally shot the owner, Bok Son Kim, and wounded her husband during a robbery attempt.

Idea isn't new

The idea for video surveillance is far from new. Mr. Schmoke pointed out that people are used to being watched in banks, at bank machines and in stores.

And in October, security cameras that had been installed on Central Light Rail cars helped police identify a suspect in the shooting of a woman who was hit by gunfire on a train in Anne Arundel County.

But videotaping citizens in public raises all sorts of questions, such as how the tapes will be used and who has access to them. The city promises to erase the tapes after 96 hours unless there is evidence of a crime, and to train the lens only on public places.

"I don't think we want to become a society where we are being watched every second of the day," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think we need to tread carefully so we don't get carried away in the future."

Antonio Gioia, a criminal defense attorney in Baltimore, also said he sees no legal violations. "One has no expectation of privacy in areas exposed to the public," he said. "It offers some protection if there is criminal activity afoot, but it does create a very Orwellian step."

Large undertaking

The surveillance effort in Baltimore may be one of the largest such undertakings in the country. Other cities, such as Virginia Beach, Va., have cameras set up, but not as extensively as is planned here.

Capt. Ernest Buzzy of the Virginia Beach Police Department said his 10 cameras -- in the tourist areas around the Boardwalk -- are monitored 18 hours a day, and are used primarily to monitor pedestrian and car traffic.

"They are there more to provide us some insight into what the situation is along the street and the oceanfront, not to look for violations in which to enact arrests," the captain said yesterday.

Dan Bowers, a consulting engineer who was hired by the Downtown Partnership to design the cameras, said he has worked with several cities, such as New Orleans, but with only limited success. He said many other efforts were too small to have an impact.

Baltimore may work better, he said, but its success depends on how police agencies use the information. He said different agencies will have to coordinate with one another to respond quickly to crimes in progress and investigate what the camera has witnessed.

"It's just like buying a personal computer," Mr. Bowers said. "You can go to any corner store and buy it, but it's what you do with it that's important."

Money for the first 16 cameras, which will help police monitor the Howard Street corridor around Lexington Market from Saratoga to Pratt streets and from Park Avenue to Eutaw Street, came from a federal and state grant.

Overhead monitors

The cameras are encased in a plastic container resembling a long mail box and will be installed on buildings about 15 feet off the ground.

Police officers working in the koban, or kiosk, at Howard and Lexington streets that opened in May, will monitor the images.

The Abell Foundation has earmarked $40,000 toward the additional cameras.

Downtown Partnership officials said they have locations and wiring in place for the cameras. But they may need more money, nearly $1 million, to carry out their plans.

Lexington Market is regarded as a pilot program for the rest of downtown. The images from the 200 cameras will be monitored at 11 different sites.

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