It's often said that there are 4 million cameras in Britain, but that number is closer to 60,000, according to Big Brother Watch, a grass-roots anti-CCTV group that conducted an extensive review of the country's local authorities. Still, cameras have generated much debate about whether the cameras serve an important function or are a wasteful intrusion into citizens' lives, with many studies concluding that they don't provide enough bang for the buck.
Westminster's cameras are monitored from a watch room behind a nondescript door inside a shopping center, past a corridor lined with pipes and metal lockers where retailers hold overflow merchandise. Inside the watch room, there are about 45 screens against the wall, manned by three employees.
McAlister showed a series of clips in which CCTV was effective. One captured men fighting outside of a pub - and monitoring the situation allowed police to send an appropriate response and find the instigator. In another clip, a man plucks items out of a purse as an oblivious young couple nuzzle against a wall in an area where police were seeing a rash of thefts. Another shows a woman, whom police knew to be dealing drugs, discreetly passing gel caps to a man walking beside her. The drugs were stored in her mouth and, on camera, it looks as if the pair are sharing gum.
In each instance, McAlister says, police passed on intelligence instructing monitors what to be on the lookout for.
"CCTV is always kind of looked at post-events. A victim of crime reports that his belongings have been stolen, police a couple of hours later contact us and say, 'Do you have anything at this hour and this time?' Already the perpetrator is gone," he said. "What we tried to do with this system is see how we can work proactively with police to nail the criminal at the scene as it's actually happening. That takes a lot of partnership between police and ourselves."
It's not all about crime, and not every disruption merits a police response. For example, monitors were noticing many people urinating on public streets as bars let out, and deployed portable toilets at peak hours. While their crime strategy revolves around "hot spots," McAlister joked that the toilets address "wet spots," and monitoring helps deploy appropriate resources.
O'Malley stopped by Westminster as part of a tour in 2005, when he was asked by London officials to demonstrate CitiStat, his award-winning city management tool. It began a series of communications between Baltimore and London officials that would continue for the next several years. Baltimore officials also looked to Chicago and Jerusalem, among other places, in trying to sort through best practices.
For O'Malley, the cameras brought a deterrent effect and added more eyes on the street. As for comments that the cameras merely displaced crime, O'Malley acknowledges "that's partly true," though he saw a benefit in moving drug dealers to other areas.
"When [the dealers] go around the corner, they also may confront a citizenry that's not as demoralized as the citizenry that was in an open-air drug market and lived with it for 20 years and had given up calling the police," he said.
"I think the greatest proof to whether or not they work is the degree to which they were embraced by neighbors, who said things were better than they were before."
Sheryl Goldstein, director of Dixon's Office on Criminal Justice, said that in recent years a new camera grid has been established in Southwest Baltimore, and officials added additional cameras at the Inner Harbor and opened an upgraded central watch center on North Howard Street. The cameras are now used more proactively in investigations, though they remain strictly a crime-fighting tool.
"The O'Malley administration did a fantastic job of getting the cameras up, which is not a small undertaking, and we've focused on making that the strongest crime-fighting tool that we can," Goldstein said.
She said the city is also exploring new technologies that would integrate the cameras with the city's 911 system and gunshot detection systems, triggering the cameras to point toward the area of emergency calls and gunfire.
In 2007, there were reports that the blue light cameras would be taken down. But Goldstein said the only thing coming down is the camera system attached to them – replaced with more modern cameras.
"The blue lights are staying up," Goldstein said. "In some extraordinary instances, we've turned them off if there was a consensus among the community that they wanted them off, but they're meant for people to know they're there."
McAlister says the blue lights simply push crime into areas out of the view of the cameras - and law enforcement. And if that is the intention and is successful, McAlister argues, what good are the cameras?
"Why not just put up a blue light?" he asks.
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