Baltimore, Britain and eyes of the law

Crime: A tale of two cities

Criticism, praise for CCTV ripple across the Atlantic

  • At Baltimore's CCTV control center, systems engineer Chris Whetzel brings up camera views on Broadway, lower left, as the Inner Harbor is shown at right. The London borough of Westminster deploys a network of street cameras similar to Baltimore's.
At Baltimore's CCTV control center, systems engineer… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
December 31, 2009|By Justin Fenton |

LONDON — Editor's note: After The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, sent a crime reporter to Baltimore last month to see if the city bears out the images on "The Wire," The Baltimore Sun sent police reporter Justin Fenton to London. This is the last in a series of articles comparing attitudes, crime and policing in London and Baltimore.

In one of the most-watched boroughs in the most-watched city in the most-watched country in the world, Rob McAlister has a message for Baltimore officials: It's not about the cameras.

Among the millions of people passing up and down the streets of Westminster, a dense borough in central London, there are thieves, pickpockets and drug dealers, and finding them by scanning the hundreds of cameras is like trying to spot a raindrop that differs from the rest.

McAlister, the Westminster city coordination manager who helped Baltimore set up its network of closed-circuit television cameras, says cameras must be incorporated into a broader city management strategy in which intelligence-sharing allows camera operators to be investigators and not night watchmen.

"We don't have a strategy for cameras any more than we have a strategy for a police car. You have a city management strategy, and the CCTV or police car is a tool in the box, to achieve the overall strategy," said McAlister. "It's not the CCTV that makes the crime go. Without an overall plan, what you end up with is very expensive recording equipment."

Five years after launching a system that cost at least $5 million and continues to grow, Baltimore claims successful results - but is still trying to work out the kinks.

McAlister gives former Mayor Martin O'Malley high praise for his research into CCTV and says Baltimore went big, buying some of the highest-quality equipment available at the time. With about 500 city-controlled cameras today, Baltimore has nearly as many per capita as Britain.

But he is critical of the way Baltimore implemented the cameras. He said cameras were erected in the middle of problem areas, which seemed to make sense. But it sent drug dealers scattering, and police scrambling to build new intelligence. Meanwhile, pushing dealers to new corners led to an increase in turf battles - effectively stoking more crime that police were less prepared to combat.

McAlister is also emphatic in his dislike for Baltimore's notorious blinking blue light cameras that dot the horizon in the city's most downtrodden areas, which he describes as high-tech scarecrows.

"The absolutely fundamental recommendation that was in 50-point font was, 'Get rid of the bloody blue lights,' " he said.

In an interview, O'Malley, now governor, concedes that during his tenure, the Police Department never fully embraced the new tool and integrated it into its operations.

"One of the challenges we encountered, and I think this is true of police culture worldwide, is that while drug dealers are quick to adopt and use new technology, law enforcement is very slow," O'Malley said. "I still think that there's a lot more that we can do with the cameras, and I think it depends on the cameras becoming a routine part of law enforcement rather than an afterthought when you run out of other leads."

Current city officials say that under Mayor Sheila Dixon, the Police Department and camera operators have taken the next step forward, increasingly working together to aid patrols and build more effective cases. Since a central watch center opened in December 2008, cameras have aided in 1,600 arrests, about half of them in the downtown business district - a 22 percent increase from the prior year.

A yet-to-be-published study by the Urban Institute credits cameras with a drop in downtown crime, though it also notes an increase in violent crime in a buffer area just beyond view of the lens.

"While there are mixed feelings about whether or not displacement occurs as a result of cameras, many feel that Baltimore is reaching a point of camera saturation so that there are very few places left to which criminals can displace," concluded the researcher, Nancy G. La Vigne.

With 30 years in the CCTV business, Westminster has cautionary tales and recommendations, and as networks grow in the U.S., McAlister believes public opinion and misguided strategies in some areas of the U.K. will lead to a scaling back of cameras there. Newspapers here often feature unfavorable accounts of misuse of cameras by local authorities.

"At one time, CCTV was the big thing. Now, people are starting to question it," McAlister said. "Does it work? Is it really defeating crime?"

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