Electronic eyes turned on crime

Police set to expand hidden camera use to safeguard streets

March 24, 2002|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

From their offices in police headquarters downtown, undercover detectives watched television images beamed from a hidden camera showing Earl Blocker dealing drugs on a street corner in East Baltimore.

They studied Blocker and other dealers for several days, learning their routines, when they opened shop, how they sold their product.

Soon after, an undercover detective bought two heroin pills from Blocker for $20, as a softball-size camera hidden 1 1/2 blocks away recorded the deal. A month later, police arrested Blocker, 27, who pleaded guilty in January to possessing and intending to distribute drugs and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Prosecutors and police said it wouldn't have been as easy to get the guilty plea without the videotape recorded by the camera, a tool that authorities nationwide are increasingly using to fight drug dealers, respond to emergencies and try to prevent terrorist attacks.

Although the trend worries civil libertarians, law enforcement officials counter that cameras are helping reduce violence by driving drug dealers indoors, out of public areas where they know they might be taped.

"The evidence is very compelling," said Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "This allows us to get in a lot closer. We don't want open-air drug dealers. We want to move them inside."

Police in Baltimore began using the cameras early last year and have primarily focused their lenses on drug dealers, though they have used them to spy on homicide suspects and watch areas enduring a rash of burglaries and robberies.

The department has about 15 cameras, which it moves around the city, hiding them in places overlooking drug corners. Police refuse to say where.

The cameras can zoom in on suspects blocks away. Some have night-vision capability. Officers at a control center can make some of them pan a scene.

Within a year, police say, they will expand the surveillance with the help of a $1.3 million network of microwave relay-and-receiving stations and a high-tech command center at police headquarters. The network will allow police to use more cameras and more quickly target drug dealers and flare-ups in crime.

Police say the system will also help them during emergencies by providing live images from cameras on the department's helicopters.

The cameras provide additional benefits.

Prosecutors say the devices corroborate officers' testimony in court, lead to better plea bargains and can help jurors understand what happened on the streets. Detectives say cameras enable them to gather better intelligence.

"We use it for any investigation that it would lend a hand, where putting a cop there would raise suspicion," said Col. John Pignataro, who heads the department's technology units and oversees the cameras.

The cameras are part of Norris' effort to bring more technology, including better wiretap tools and surveillance devices, to the department. The cameras are different from those used in the open by private security firms citywide and 48 others that are operated around the city's center by the Downtown Partnership. The partnership's cameras are in fixed positions and record all day, but are not monitored.

Experts say the department's cameras are legal because courts have long held that people have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public areas. Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, said the devices might be vulnerable to legal challenges but could also raise deeper issues and perhaps even alter the fabric of city life.

"It changes the character of our society when citizens have to walk around looking over their shoulders unsure if cameras are on," said Rosen, author of Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, about surveillance tactics.

"Then you are more inhibited, less free, less able to express yourself," Rosen said.

Norris dismissed those claims and said those who benefit from cameras do not complain about them. The commissioner often tells a story of a public meeting in the mid-1990s in New York City at which several civil libertarians were complaining about the police department's proposed camera system. An elderly woman stood up and lashed out at them.

"She said that all those people already had cameras in their private buildings and didn't complain about them," Norris said. "She said she wanted the cameras, too."

New York police began installing the cameras in public housing projects in New York City and saw significant drops in crime in those areas. The crime drop continued, with areas under surveillance posting much larger crime decreases than those without coverage. So far this year, crime has dropped 15 percent in the housing projects - and 24 percent in those areas police have installed the cameras, New York police say.

Other cities have taken similar steps. Washington, D.C., for example, has set up an extensive network of cameras that officers and federal agents can monitor from a command center.

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