No substitute for police officers Video age: Electronic surveillance is just another tool for fighting crime.

April 26, 1996

FIGHTING CRIME in the 21st century may not be like the "Robocop" movies, but in most cities high-tech devices have already become as common a tool for police to use as a pair of handcuffs. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to be part of the new wave. He and Police Chief Thomas C. Frazier want to stop the criticism that followed reports showing Baltimore isn't among the urban areas that have had recent drops in crime.

Last year, the mayor voiced his interest in buying an item that is still in the experimental stage, a portable imaging device that can detect a concealed weapon. It could be months before field testing of that camera is completed. In the meantime, Mr. Schmoke will make do with existing video technology. He has placed 16 police surveillance cameras on buildings in the Howard Street corridor around Lexington Market, from Saratoga to Pratt streets and from Park Avenue to Eutaw Street.

A federal grant administered by the governor's office with matching funds from the Mass Transit Administration was used to buy the cameras. The Abell Foundation and Downtown Partnership are cooperating to help the city place up to 200 cameras throughout downtown, with about two cameras on each block.

We hope that everyone involved understands the limitations of these video officers. They can see all and do nothing. Effective policing still requires the city to have adequate numbers of human officers near enough to respond to what they see through the cameras' eyes.

But placing 200 cameras in downtown locations where they can see what occurs in public -- not private -- should give comfort to both Baltimoreans and visitors to our city. The possibility of being caught on videotape may deter some criminals. And the recorded evidence provided by the cameras could be enough to send other miscreants to jail.

Understandably, some fears about the cameras have been raised, but there is no reason to believe the machines will be used to impinge on people's civil liberties. Those complaining about "Big Brother" probably wouldn't be as vocal if the mayor had announced he was stationing two officers per block downtown to watch for criminals. The surveillance cameras, if used as stated, will simply be high-tech tools. The humans using them will determine their worth.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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