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Anne Arundel county executive shuts down in-house surveillance operation

Initial investigation finds nothing inappropriate, but county review continuing

March 05, 2013|By Andrea K. Walker and Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Still, Grasso said the issue going forward is an administrative matter and should be up to the county executive, who runs operations.

"Whatever she finds fit to do is on her," Grasso said.

Neuman said investigators have secured computer monitors, hard drives and files. They changed the locks on the door to the office that monitored activity on the cameras and will use special technology to look at stored files, county officials said.

The cameras are still on, but the computer system to monitor the devices has been shut down until the investigation is complete. An additional 300 cameras in places such as courthouses and police stations are operating still and being monitored by police.

Neuman said the cameras were paid for with a grant to the county from the Department of Homeland Security. She said she still is trying to determine if county money was also used to fund the devices, and how long the cameras and surveillance room had existed.

P. Thomas Shanahan, the county's police chief from 1998 to 2006, said the first cameras were installed during his tenure "to protect property and people." Shanahan said some of the cameras were installed in response to thefts.

"Any novice security expert would tell you that cameras are a great deterrent," Shanahan said.

Neuman said she isn't opposed to cameras in public areas for security reasons. Once the investigation is completed, all monitoring of cameras will be done by the intelligence unit of the police department, county officials said.

Many jurisdictions use cameras for security. There are 600 cameras on streets in Baltimore, primarily for the city's Citiwatch program. An additional 123 cameras installed before Citiwatch was created monitor City Hall and other public buildings.

A Howard County spokesman said the county maintains video cameras at most county-owned buildings and facilities, including those operated by the Police Department, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Colin Starger, a University of Baltimore assistant professor of law, said countries worldwide have accepted video surveillance to varying degrees. Much of London, for example, is under video surveillance. Ultimately, Starger said, a society, or a community in the case of Anne Arundel County, should question the effectiveness of such a program.

Too much oversight could discourage healthy aspects of American society, because individuals may feel hesitant to participate in a protest or criticize or question the government "if you have to worry about the eye in the sky," Starger said. "I don't think anything is inherently wrong with it, but it's the kind of thing people should question. Are we willing to trade off?"

An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said the group is not opposed generally to cameras in public areas of municipal buildings for security purposes. David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Maryland chapter, did raise questions about the number of cameras in Anne Arundel and why so many were needed.

He also said Neuman was right to show concern about the cameras' monitoring.

"It would certainly set off alarm bells for me," Rocah said. "It raises questions about oversight, purpose and if there is a legitimate reason for it."

Neuman said she will reveal findings of the investigation as it is completed.

"I believe in candor and I do believe in transparency," she said.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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