Camera system expands in city

Three high-crime areas and Canton to be added

ACLU opposes the surveillance

Only public spaces a part of monitoring, officials say

December 02, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's nascent network of 24-hour surveillance cameras, which is monitoring the Inner Harbor, is being expanded to cover three high-crime corridors and the Canton waterfront, city officials said yesterday.

The cameras, an outgrowth of a regional homeland security initiative announced in June, eventually will be part of a surveillance network spanning five counties and stretching from the Inner Harbor to the Bay Bridge, an expansive system criticized by privacy advocates.

The $3 million addition that the city Board of Estimates announced yesterday is aimed more at criminals than at terrorists and is being financed mostly by proceeds seized from drug dealers and not by homeland security grants.

But once the patchwork of cameras and monitoring rooms is knitted together, the proposed Baltimore regional system could be one of the most extensive surveillance systems undertaken in the nation, officials at the Electronic Privacy Information Center said.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the Baltimore network, saying the camera system infringes on privacy rights and are ineffective in fighting crime or terrorism.

"Americans have a real strong sense of privacy rights and are really offended by efforts to breach those rights," said Stacey Mink, a spokeswoman for ACLU of Maryland. "The money would be better spent on police on the streets."

City officials say the cameras will monitor only public spaces.

"The opposite of the fear of Big Brother is true," said Kristen Mahoney, director of the Baltimore Police Department's grants and government relations section. "I've had a number of private groups asking if their neighborhood could be the next to get the cameras."

City officials contend that the new cameras in East Baltimore and Northwest Baltimore will have the same impact on reducing crime as privately financed surveillance networks in downtown and portions of Greektown. In those instances, crime has declined 25 percent to 40 percent.

74 cameras

Once the terms of a deal are negotiated, Tele-Tector of Maryland Inc. will install 74 cameras that will provide 24-hour surveillance in three high-crime neighborhoods. Each system will be monitored by light-duty officers and community volunteers at police districts. A separate contract needs to be negotiated for the Canton camera system.

The inner-city cameras are to monitor approximately two-block swaths along Greenmount Avenue between Federal and East 25th streets; along East Monument Street between Edison Highway and Chester Street; and along Park Heights Avenue between Northern Parkway and Keyworth Avenue.

"We're talking about 20 square blocks that account for 6 percent of the total violent crime in the city," acting Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm said.

The city chose to negotiate with Tele-Tector of Maryland without a bidding process because the company administers the Johns Hopkins University's closed-circuit television camera network. The company also installed the Greektown cameras.

The Greektown system was set up in 2001 and is a model for the three new community systems. The Greektown Community Development Corp. paid for two cameras on Eastern Avenue near Lehigh Street, and the group provides volunteers to the Southeastern police district to help do the monitoring.

"The criminals know we're watching," said John E. Gavrilis, chief executive of the Greektown group and a former city police colonel.

Mahoney said the area monitored by the Greektown cameras has experienced a 40 percent drop in crime since 2001.

The Downtown Partnership's network of 80 cameras, which are reviewed periodically but not monitored, led to a 25 percent reduction in crime from 2001 to 2002, the most recent years that data were available, spokesman Mike Evitts said.

Community activist Naomi Hines said she welcomes the cameras in her Park Heights neighborhood, which she said is overrun by drug dealers.

"They might just go on the side streets to deal," said Hines, who has lived in the area for 33 years. "You run them from one place, and they go to another place."

But, she added, "It's worth trying."

Regional connection

In June, the city announced that it was building a network of about 80 cameras in downtown's west side and in the Inner Harbor that would be able to connect to the state's system of closed-circuit cameras that monitor highways. Eventually, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties and Annapolis would plug their systems into the city's hub.

That group of cameras, from the west side to the waterfront, is part of a comprehensive strategy backed by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to spend $25 million in homeland security grants this year and next to improve regional cooperation on terrorism concerns.

The west-side camera network is expected to be built by spring. Monitoring will take place at a surveillance center in the Atrium building on Howard Street. Six microwave cameras have been operating at the Inner Harbor since October. But a central monitoring system at police headquarters downtown is still being built.

An $800,000 grant from the federal government approved yesterday will expand that harbor coverage to include the Canton waterfront, Mahoney said.

Several other cities, including Washington, have built closed-circuit systems to help monitor crime. But most, like Washington, activate and monitor the systems mainly during events that attract large crowds, according to a June 2003 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

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