Surveillance system captures courthouse from all angles

November 24, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

From a desk full of monitors in the basement of the Baltimore County courthouse, Lt. Tony Chambers watched one recent morning as lawyers argued a case, people got on and off the elevators, and an incarcerated defendant preened and danced in a holding cell.

Then, using a device similar to a video game joystick, he panned across several blocks in Towson that surround the courthouse, zooming in on buildings and license plates of individual cars.

"It's an amazing system," Chambers said of the security surveillance cameras recently installed in the five-story Circuit Court building. "Before, we had to walk around and monitor each hallway individually. Now we can see the whole building at once. If something looks shady or something is about to happen, we can contact the deputies posted to that area to respond in a more timely manner."

The $144,000 system -- paid for with a combination of grants from the county and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- digitally records the day-to-day occurrences in the building's 20 courtrooms and hearing rooms, as well as its hallways, lobbies, stairwells and prisoner cells.

The recordings can be monitored live and can also be edited to save portions that could lead to criminal charges.

"It's another set of eyes for us -- and we need that," said Baltimore County Sheriff R. Jay Fisher, whose department is responsible for courthouse security.

Courthouse officials in neighboring jurisdictions have installed similar surveillance systems in their court buildings.

In Baltimore County, the recordings came in handy not long ago after a bitter child custody case turned ugly. As the second-floor elevator doors opened and the estranged parents ran into each other, a black dome camera installed in the ceiling captured the man attacking the woman.

County prosecutors used that clip to file charges against the man, said Chambers, a member of the sheriff's office.

Footage from a lobby camera helped settle a dispute with a courthouse visitor who claimed he had left a camera with the sheriff's deputies who staff the metal detectors at the building's entrances, Fisher said.

The outdoor cameras have recorded footage that has been used in the investigation of vehicle crashes that occurred on the roads alongside the courthouse.

Perched on the roof of the building on Bosley Avenue between Chesapeake and Pennsylvania avenues, one camera is so technologically advanced that it can provide crystal-clear footage of buildings on the far side of York Road and the traffic circle in downtown Towson.

In the building's 17 courtrooms and three masters' hearing rooms, the cameras are perched above the judge's bench. The vantage point offers a view of the tables where prosecutors and defense attorneys sit during a court case as well as the jury box and the spectators' seats.

"That's the important angle," said Chambers, "because if anything is going to happen, it's going to be between the defendant or the defendant's family and the victim's family."

The last of the 80 cameras, which do not provide audio recordings, were installed within the past few weeks and will be fully operational next week.

Judge John G. Turnbull II, the administrative judge of the Circuit Court, said the cameras are an additional layer of security for courtroom staff and an important precautionary measure.

"I hope we don't ever have to use them for something serious, frankly, but it's another security tool," he said. "You don't even notice it's there -- the lawyers just need to be aware that they're on camera 24 hours a day when they're in a courtroom so that when we're in recess, they don't do something to embarrass themselves."

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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