The voice you hear might be a camera

City to install talking monitors to curb crime

November 17, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Vandals and litterbugs targeting Baltimore's neighborhoods will soon get a talking-to from an unlikely source - the city's newest breed of surveillance camera.

Five talking cameras - armed with motion detectors, a bright flash and a recorded warning - were approved by the city's Board of Estimates yesterday as part of an effort to curb quality-of-life crimes, especially illegal dumping.

The cameras, which cost about $5,000 apiece, are the latest in surveillance technology that cities across the country are using to deter everything from red-light runners to drug dealers. They will add to an already expansive network of monitoring equipment in Baltimore.

Officials might record any message they like - a collective admonishment from nearby residents or a personal threat from Mayor Martin O'Malley. But for now, the city is sticking to a default recording made at the factory.

"Stop," the solar-powered cameras will scold upon sensing motion. "This is a restricted area. It is illegal to dump trash or spray graffiti here. We have just taken your photograph. We will use this photograph to prosecute you. Leave the area now."

If the booming voice from on high - light poles, most likely - isn't enough to scare away offending litterers, the camera will snap a still photograph and save it to a storage card, which police could use to identify a suspect.

City officials would not say where, specifically, the cameras will be placed.

"It's quite startling," said Ken Anderson, president of California-based Q-Star Technology, which developed the camera. "It's generally going off in the middle of the night, [and] people generally aren't expecting it."

Anderson said about 150 cities use the cameras to control graffiti, loitering and illegal dumping. Cincinnati has installed 20 cameras, concentrated in residential areas and city parks.

"We're not looking to catch them, we're looking at it as a deterrent and it has served us well," said Linda Holterhoff, executive director of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, a nonprofit that launched the camera program about a year ago.

That's not to say the technology is problem-free. Residents of one Cincinnati neighborhood complained about the camera's loud volume until the city turned it down. Placement can be tricky, as vandals move around corners to escape the lens. Occasionally, the camera's wrath is misdirected.

"We have pictures of deer," Holterhoff said.

Baltimore's investment in the cameras - nearly $25,000 - is small compared with the 24-hour surveillance infrastructure in place in many high-crime neighborhoods and near potential terrorist targets. In addition to privately operated cameras around such institutions as downtown hospitals, roughly 175 police cameras record street-level activity, and the city is planning to deploy dozens more.

This year, a nondescript surveillance camera on Monument Street helped police investigate a homicide. Though it did not capture the shooting, the camera let police identify otherwise hard-to-find witnesses.

Other cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, are increasingly relying on video cameras to investigate crime. But the surveillance has drawn criticism from privacy advocates who argue that cities should hire more police officers rather than shell out for cameras.

"It seems to be an atmosphere of, `We will watch you no matter what, even if you're innocent,'" said Melissa Ngo, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Baltimore officials said they had success testing two of the cameras this summer. Elliot Schlanger, the city's chief information officer, said he began looking at the option after O'Malley brought up trash he had spotted as he was entering the city from New York.

"It's just another tool in our tool bag for fulfilling the mayor's goal of making Baltimore a safe and clean city," Schlanger said.

According to yesterday's Board of Estimates agenda, dummy cameras will occupy some of the sites - unlike police surveillance cameras, which Schlanger said are all recording. City officials said that the talking cameras would be rotated and that nothing will distinguish a phony from the real thing.

Both will reprimand their subjects. And that, supporters said, is usually enough to make a difference.

"It's kind of a forced accountability," said Anderson, the camera's designer. "You tend to be more accountable if someone's watching."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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