Balto. Co. police use 24-hour 'iWatch' to gather information

New online system posts images of suspects, takes citizen tips

February 17, 2011|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

The young man in the dark jacket and gray baseball cap worn backward seems to have had a good day shopping at Best Buy in Owings Mills, judging by the size of the blue bag he's carrying as he steps out of the store, glancing quickly to his left in the direction of the surveillance camera. You can see him online now — or anytime — and the Baltimore County Police Department hopes you'll know something about him.

The image of the person who police believe was involved in a car break-in and credit card theft last month is part of a high-tech citizen "iWatch" program unveiled Thursday by the police. iWatch features an online tip system monitored 24 hours a day that can receive text messages, and offers crime alerts featuring video surveillance pictures.

"You can't fully protect yourself or others unless you are informed," Police Chief James W. Johnson said at a news conference Thursday morning at police headquarters in Towson.

The program is the latest in a series of technological steps Baltimore County police have taken, joining departments across the country and the world in finding new ways to use computers and gadgets to enforce the law. Such initiatives have won praise, but also drawn some concern about how information gathered by technology will be used.

Baltimore County has introduced digital license plate readers attached to police cars that will alert the officer inside when he's just passed a car that might be stolen or registered to a criminal suspect. In Florida, the Miami-Dade County police have just bought a new flying surveillance drone built by a military contractor. In London, police are using facial and tattoo-matching software with surveillance video pictures.

Johnson announced Thursday that the program is accepting sign-ups for e-mailed crime alerts and online reports of anything from possible terrorist activity to abandoned cars and graffiti. He said in the past the police might get surveillance video of a criminal suspect shown on a TV newscast for a few seconds, but the new system expands the potential exposure of the material.

According to a report posted on an international symposium on "Techno-Crimefighting" held this month at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, technology is infusing criminal justice, "from the investigation to the prosecution of crimes — even attempts to predict them."

Dennis J. Kenney, a John Jay professor who gave a presentation on video surveillance with an official from New Scotland Yard in London at the symposium, is skeptical about big investments in technology or seeing it as a substitute for good police work. Still, he said technological tools can be useful in the hands of skilled investigators.

"Policing is a personal activity, a human activity, not a technological activity " said Kenney, a former Polk County, Fla., police officer. He said he thought that posting video images of suspects could be useful in solving crimes, although he cautions that the county's new online tip program will likely collect lots of junk.

"The vast majority of stuff they're going to get is going to be useless," Kenney said.

Baltimore County police have posted a list of "Suspicious Behaviors to Report," on the iWatch site. These behaviors include "Unknown individuals loitering or lurking near you"; "Strangers asking questions about a home or building"; and "People who identify themselves but do not have credentials."

David Rocah, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said he was less concerned about the technological aspects of the program than with the question of how "suspicious" behavior is being defined and what police do with the information once they get it.

In an interview after the news conference, Johnson said the police will sort out information they're getting online just as they have always handled reports received over the phone, including those that turn out to have more to do with race than wrongdoing.

"Using the telephone 911 system, we receive calls every day that could be related to some argument about profiling," said Johnson. "We're well aware, and we're sensitive to civil liberties issues."

Rocah said there's a potential risk to privacy if information gathered by such a system is transferred to national databases and remains there. Lt. Robert McCullough, a police spokesman, said the material will be kept in-house and used only for department investigations.

Johnson said online tipsters can choose to remain anonymous, and he said police will not pursue their identity any more than they would the identity of those who contact the police anonymously by phone.

"We receive, every day, dozens of 911 calls," Johnson said. "When the caller wants to remain anonymous, we respect that."

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