Camera viewed warily

Police install device in Federal Hill in response to crime

July 04, 2006|By CHRIS YAKAITIS | CHRIS YAKAITIS,SUN REPORTER

Federal Hill residents agree on this: They're tired of a recent spate of petty crimes, holdups and burglaries. They're a bit more divided about the new police camera looming over William and East Montgomery streets, put there to help catch the miscreants.

Federal Hill's first surveillance camera is a welcome crime deterrent to some and an irritating eyesore to others.

"It's an affront to the people who live here," said Judi Wallace, who has lived a few doors from the intersection for 21 years. "It's like Big Brother watching 24 hours a day."

Across the street, Mark Swimmer, another 21-year resident, challenged the notion that wary neighbors would no longer be comfortable sipping wine on their front steps.

"I don't buy it," he said. "You think they put these cameras in to catch chardonnay drinkers?"

For now, the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association is not taking sides. "At this point I don't have a really good feel for what the majority of the residents in that area want," said association President Paul Quinn. "It came as a surprise and it was not requested through us, which is OK."

The Federal Hill camera is one of about 80 portable surveillance units - known as "podds" - in the city's 300-camera system, said police spokesman Matt Jablow. He said it was installed in response to a recent rash of thefts from cars parked in the area.

"That's the beauty of these podds. We can respond to certain spikes in crime quickly, and that's what we did here," he said.

Jablow said police have noted a 15 percent drop in violent crime in Baltimore areas with cameras.

But the benefits come at a price even supporters acknowledge: the perceived stigma that a police surveillance camera and its flashing blue light means a neighborhood is a high-crime area. Opponents said that fear could drive people away and depress property values in a historic neighborhood with lively nightlife, cobblestone streets and restaurants with outdoor seating, and where rowhouses typically sell for $500,000 and up.

The new camera has not been programmed to flash its blue warning light because police said that it is there as part of an investigation targeting a specific crime but that it is recording.

Swimmer, 42, said residents along William and Montgomery streets were abuzz over the weekend with discussion of the camera, which hangs over the southwest corner of the intersection and was installed on Thursday. He said he couldn't understand why people think the cameras make the neighborhood look bad.

"I think it increases the value of my property," he said. "I'd like to see one up at the park."

But Wallace said she and several other neighbors have already called the city to lobby for the camera's removal. "I think it should come down," she said. "I'd rather have higher visibility of police coming around."

Others expressed frustration at a lack of advance notice by the city.

"We were given no information about how it works, what it means," said Peg McCarthy, a 15-year Federal Hill resident. "I don't like it being imposed upon us without a process."

The city began using the closed-circuit camera network in May 2005. In addition to the 80 portable units, police have installed about 220 fixed cameras in high-crime areas of Park Heights, East Monument Street, North Avenue and Greenmount Avenue corridors, Jablow said. He said Mayor Martin O'Malley has allocated $3 million for the rollout of an additional 100 portable cameras this year.

Kristen Mahoney, chief of technical services for the city police, said the $15,000 portable units take less than two hours to install. The camera in Federal Hill, she said, is a detective division unit being used in an active investigation of the recent break-ins and car-theft problems.

"When the detectives obtain the evidence they need, the detectives move their podds to another area," she said. Other cameras, such as ones used by patrol officers, are in place for a longer time, Mahoney said.

"Cameras can be a solution to crime problems, but they can't be deployed the same way from neighborhood to neighborhood," she said.

Jablow said police would review data from the camera in the next few days and "see where we are."

Swimmer said that, in addition to the auto break-ins, two women were robbed at gunpoint and a number of cars were keyed within the past month. He said the camera has made him much more comfortable.

Returning from a weekend trip yesterday, Jason Solarino, 30, and Andrea Robinson, 28, stopped a block from home and set down their luggage to survey the new addition to the neighborhood.

"I'm fine with it," Solarino said. "If they could only put angle parking in, we'd be set."

chris.yakaitis@baltsun.com

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