City passes camera law

Aberdeen agencies may now require surveillance devices in developments

October 07, 2007|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun Reporter

Hoping to deter crime by expanding the use of surveillance cameras, Aberdeen passed a measure that empowers the city government and police to require cameras in new developments.

The Police Department, the Department of Planning and Community Development, and the Department of Public Works will decide whether a new residential, commercial or industrial development must install cameras at "strategic locations" before a development permit is issued.

The City Council passed the measure, which becomes effective next week, by a 4-1 vote.

Cameras installed at new developments will be connected to a watch room at the police station, Mayor S. Fred Simmons said.

Simmons said the police chief will work with the other departments to study the feasibility of installation and check whether a camera is "wanted and necessary" at new developments.

But the ordinance does not spell out guidelines for determining whether a new development will be required to have cameras, which concerned the lone dissenter on the council vote, Ruth Elliott.

"We have no internal procedures or policies on this," Elliott said. "It is vague, and you can read in between the lines."

Though crime is decreasing in Aberdeen, the city is seeking to prevent crime by expanding the camera program, Simmons said. The city installed cameras this year at two troubled intersections: one on Edmund and Washington streets and the other on East Bel Air and Aberdeen avenues.

The cameras can zoom in, rotate 360 degrees, and are monitored from the city's police station. Footage from the cameras has been used to prosecute drug cases.

"The cameras are going to see what the police officers are going to see," Simmons said. "It's another set of eyes. That's all."

Surveillance cameras are a familiar sight in larger cities such as New York and Chicago. In Baltimore, a network of about 400 surveillance cameras is in use. And smaller Maryland towns, including Preston and Ridgely in Caroline County, use surveillance cameras. The Harford County Sheriff's Office has been looking into bringing cameras to Edgewood.

Law enforcement officials have credited the cameras with providing information about suspects such as descriptions and license plate numbers.

Simmons said he is interested in expanding the camera program in Aberdeen to monitor traffic on U.S. 40, using cameras that can read license plate numbers and run them through a computer database to check whether a car is stolen or the registration is expired.

"You can't go to a supermarket, the ATM, or a drugstore without being camera'ed," Simmons said. "They're all camera'ed. ... Look up and there's three or four white cameras capturing everything on the state highway. We live in that age."

Elliott voiced discomfort with that notion.

"I don't care to have cameras everywhere in the city," the councilwoman said. "I'm supportive of having cameras in areas where there are problems."

Elliott said the ordinance doesn't protect average residents.

"Whatever that's caught on camera, that may not be of a criminal aspect, just a personal thing could be used depending on who is looking at those tapes," she said. "That info could be released to the wrong people - that's why we need tighter procedures and policies."

Elliott expressed concern that the two-sentence ordinance gives broad authority to the city without laying out parameters about how the city will determine whether a development should have cameras.

But Simmons said, "The reason why it's left open is that the whole landscape changes all the time."

Melissa Ngo, senior counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also questioned an ordinance that lacked guidelines on determining where cameras would be required.

"How are they going to decide?" said Ngo, whose Washington-based organization studies civil liberty and privacy issues. "If this is going to be low-income development, are they going to watch over the poor people? If this is going to be fancy condos, are they going to decide that they don't need to look over those people?"

madison.park@baltsun.com

THE ORDINANCE

Aberdeen Ordinance No. 731-06: Surveillance Cameras:

Provisions for security cameras shall be installed at strategic locations in all commercial and industrial developments and in any residential developments deemed appropriate by the Aberdeen Police Department and Department of Planning and Community Development. Coordination between the Aberdeen Police Department, Department of Public Works and the property owner will be required prior to the approval of any development permits.

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