Who's watching in Anne Arundel?

Our view: Neuman right to move quickly to shut down mysterious security cameras

March 05, 2013

Act first and ask questions later is not always a great management strategy, but in the case of Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman's response to a mysterious network of surveillance cameras in and around government buildings, it's hard to consider it rash. Ms. Neuman has now been on the job for a little over a week, after being named by the County Council to replace former executive John Leopold, and given the circumstances of his departure, Ms. Neuman can't act fast enough to convince county workers and residents that a new leader has taken charge at the Arundel Center. Her swift reaction to the security cameras and her openness about the matter suggest she means business.

Mr. Leopold was found guilty of ordering police officers assigned to his executive protection detail to perform political tasks for him and of requiring an aide and others to perform the demeaning task of changing the urinary catheter bag he was forced to wear after back surgery. The common theme was his inability to separate his personal interest from his public power; of particular note, he required the executive protection officers to compile dossiers on his political opponents, something that would seem to fit better in a police state than a democratically elected local government.

Ms. Neuman came into office on a promise not only to set a new direction but also to eliminate all those who even had the appearance of furthering Mr. Leopold's misdeeds. "Scandal," she said, "has support."

Even with that preconception, she was in for quite a shock when she pulled into her parking space on her first full day on the job. A man she had not met before came out a side door of the building and introduced himself. When she asked what he did, he showed her an unmarked office on the first floor of the Arundel Center filled with equipment to monitor more than 500 cameras throughout the county. Ms. Neuman fired him almost immediately and took steps to prevent any tampering with the computers and other equipment in the room pending a full investigation. Though she has not said whether the decisions were related, she also quickly moved to replace the county's head of information technology.

It's entirely possible that a full investigation into the matter will reveal nothing illegal or even necessarily untoward. It is routine for local, state and federal government agencies to maintain security cameras around their facilities.

But several things about what Ms. Neuman discovered are unusual, if not outright suspicious. The camera system was not monitored by those charged with maintaining building security; in fact, county police operate a separate network of some 300 cameras. The person who did monitor them was a contract employee who was paid from the police department budget but answered only to the county executive. And although the employee, identified by The Sun as former county police officer William Hyers, provided monthly reports to the police department about the cameras, those reports evidently related to maintenance issues, not what was observed or why.

At a minimum, the investigation into the matter needs to uncover what the system was for, who authorized it, who knew about it and who reviewed the footage. It is hard to believe that so many cameras could be installed without the knowledge and consent of the police chief, and it's hard to understand why a police chief would agree to the creation of a surveillance system parallel to the one his officers operate. The County Council also needs to determine how something like this could have happened under their noses.

But even with so many questions unanswered, Ms. Neuman was right to act quickly. More than anything else she has done so far, shutting down the camera system and announcing it publicly provide a real symbolic break with the Leopold administration. Even if there proves to be some innocent explanation, it is at the least inefficient to have two, parallel security camera systems. If the cameras serve a legitimate public safety purpose, control of them should be transferred to the county police. If not, they should remain shut down.

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