Cameras another point of police-prosecutor contention

CRIME SCENES

April 07, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The news release from the Baltimore state's attorney's office seemed routine enough, trumpeting a guilty plea that sent a man to prison for 20 years for shooting someone in the back in Park Heights and for using a handgun in the commission of a violent crime.

Prosecutors noted that surveillance camera footage helped secure the conviction - and that even in tough budget times, with the jobs of hundreds of police officers threatened, the city has proposed spending $1.2 million to maintain more than 500 cameras.

The mayor's office, which backs the surveillance system, quickly sent out its own news release praising prosecutors for praising the cameras.

But praise was not the intent of State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Her April 1 statement was intended to subtly point out that camera-assisted convictions in violent crimes are rare, that of the 229 guilty pleas or verdicts last year in crimes captured on video, 228 were related to drugs. One was for murder.

Baltimore police keep their own statistics and readily concede that their numbers don't - and probably never will - match those collected by prosecutors. Their count nearly doubles the number of arrests that prosecutors say were made with the help of video. And police view the cameras, most of which offer live feeds watched over by officers in a command center, as an invaluable tool proved to deter violent crime.

The statement from Jessamy's office served only to illustrate the rift between Baltimore's two top law enforcement officers: the mayor-appointed police commissioner and the elected state's attorney. They have squabbled for months on issues such as the way crime is fought, how officers perform and how offenders seem to go from the streets to jails to streets with relative ease.

Jessamy's spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, stressed that the news release, which appears to support video surveillance cameras, was designed to do just the opposite. It was meant to highlight statistics that she says show arrests caught on video have declined (1,368 in 2007 to 759 last year), even as more cameras are deployed.

And Burns said that most of the 759 arrests in which a police officer wrote the words "camera" in a report were for misdemeanor drug charges. Prosecutors dropped about a third of them, for reasons ranging from "insufficient evidence" to police officers failing to appear in court to testify, she said.

"I think the public has been misinformed that the cameras produce great evidence," Burns said Tuesday. She said the shooting in Park Heights "was one of the few instances where a camera was used to solve a violent gun crime."

Statistics from Jessamy's office show that the 576 camera-related court cases completed in 2009 included 229 guilty pleas or verdicts, 246 cases dismissed by prosecutors and five acquittals.

Prosecutors' statistics also show that of the 759 arrests made with the help of cameras in 2009, there were 207 guilty verdicts or pleas, 214 cases awaiting trial and four acquittals.

Baltimore police do not dispute that most of the arrests caught on surveillance video are related to drugs, but they vehemently disagree with the conclusions and statistics from Jessamy's office. Police count not only offense reports in which an officer wrote the word "camera" but also cases in which such video was used to make a case. That could include cases in which officers in the command center watched a live feed of a crime or directed officers responding to a call.

Counting that way, Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said there were 1,725 camera-assisted arrests in 2009 - many more than the number cited by prosecutors, and a 22 percent increase from the previous year.

Goldstein said those arrests include about 1,000 related to drugs, 77 for assaults, 45 for robberies and 17 for theft. The only statistic that police and prosecutors agree on is that there was one camera-assisted arrest in a murder.

Goldstein said the cameras provide help that statistics cannot show. They give police in the command center the ability to watch crowds, zoom in on potential trouble spots, spot crime before someone dials 911 and then watch the scene to instruct officers as they respond to the call.

Prosecutors note that city officials - as they did in 2004, when cameras became a part of the crime-fighting strategy, and as they do in the most recent budget proposal - continue to call the surveillance system "a force multiplier" that has been proved "to reduce crime and assist prosecutions."

Prosecutors object to the cameras in part because they say officials in 2004 hyped their worth - making the public believe that prosecutors could more easily take criminals off the streets because the cameras would catch them in the act. Rarely does that happen. Last year, Assistant State's Attorney Rich Gibson told The Baltimore Sun: "I've never had a case in which a video was a slam-dunk."

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