A View Of Police Work's Future

Crime: A Tale Of Two Cities

November 11, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Justin.fenton@baltsun.com

LONDON — LONDON

London's police stations could offer a view of the future of American policing - if the political will is there to make it happen.

Touring a station in Brixton, I was shown a tiny room with a machine the size of a refrigerator that takes fingerprints from criminal suspects. This room was also where police collected DNA samples from everyone who passes through.

DNA collection is expanding in America. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley just recently pushed through legislation to broaden DNA collection capabilities to include individuals charged with crimes of violence, first-, second- or third-degree burglary or attempting these crimes.

But this is still a long way from Britain, where you don't need to be charged with an offense for your DNA to be taken, and you can end up in the database even if you're never found guilty of a crime.

When O'Malley proposed the extension (previously you had to be convicted of a crime to have your DNA taken) there was fierce opposition, with one black politician calling it "high-tech [racial] profiling."

More than 46,000 samples have been uploaded since the bill passed, used to make 155 arrests, including 15 for homicides and 76 for sexual assaults. In Britain, 4.5 million people are in the database

Then there is closed-circuit TV. Upstairs in Brixton, two officers sit at computers, with three flat-screen televisions in front of them. One was tuned to the TV show "The X Factor," but the others were scanning the wide array of closed-circuit cameras set up around the area. Use of cameras is also expanding in America. In Baltimore, police have those "blue-light cameras" that flash to make their presence known, and other cameras that can't be viewed live.

But the number of live cameras in Baltimore is increasing, with the private networks being integrated into a central system viewed from a room downtown called The Atrium. Officials I've spoken to seem lukewarm about its effectiveness.

I've written about homicide suspects tracked in real time who were apprehended thanks to people manning the cameras, though there have also been instances where the video was used to contradict an officer's account, or wasn't as good as advertised and swayed a jury from the prosecutor's version of the events.

Use of closed-circuit cameras is in its infancy, with cities beefing up their networks, and to the average citizen, the idea of being constantly monitored remains a foreign and, to some, chilling concept.

I was also intrigued by the drug testing and counseling that is imposed upon arrest. Baltimore's drug problem could benefit from the sort of counseling that is made part of bail restrictions in England. But it's hard to imagine that the public would entrust our police with such a task, and the thought of law enforcement adding drug treatment to its heavy workload would seem unreasonable to police.

After The Independent, a national newspaper in England, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore to see if the city bears out the images on "The Wire," The Baltimore Sun sent police reporter Justin Fenton to London to compare crime trends. For more observations, visit baltimoresun.com/twoc ities.

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