Sunday, April 23, 2006

Baltimore officials say “talking” cameras that issue stern warnings to trespassers have resulted in less graffiti vandalism and illegal dumping throughout the city.

“If you had seen the areas before we had placed the cameras, there was a whole lot of activity,” said Glenwood Thomas, an investigator with the city’s Environmental Crimes Unit. “Now we don’t have that activity at all in those locations.”

Cameras with audio messages have become increasingly popular across the country, though civil liberties advocates question their effectiveness at deterring crime and say the devices can encroach on privacy.

“They’re particularly effective and … there are particular privacy issues,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the District-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

He also called them “uniquely creepy.”

About 250 cities, including Cincinnati and the Los Angeles area, use the cameras to curb activities such as illegal trash dumping and graffiti, said Ken Anderson, president and co-founder of the California-based Q-Star Technology, which developed the cameras.

One jurisdiction in the South uses five of the cameras at a cemetery to stop grave robbers, he said.

“They’re a very effective deterrent,” Mr. Anderson said. “If you’re out somewhere in the dark in the middle of a park and you’re up to no good, the flash and the voice together are quite startling.”

Baltimore officials voted in November to place five of the cameras in areas targeted by vandals and small-time contractors looking to skirt landfill fees by dumping their trash into alleys and vacant lots.

The solar-powered, motion-activated cameras cost about $5,000 each and have been used since January. They sound a message that says, “Stop. This is a restricted area. We have just taken your photograph and will use this photo to prosecute you. Leave the area immediately.”

The city has set up two “dummy” cameras that sound the warning but do not take a picture.

“The areas where they have the cameras, [vandals] have ceased dumping there,” said the Rev. Robert C. Burley, president of the Oliver Community Association, which requested and received cameras from the city. “We need more cameras.”

Beth Hart, manager of Baltimore’s Office of Information Technology, said officials have begun analyzing the network’s memory cards to see whether criminals were caught on tape. Several graffiti vandals have been caught on the city’s network of 250 mute surveillance cameras, she said.

Other jurisdictions in the D.C. area also use the cameras. Prince George’s County public schools own two, and Howard County public schools own one. Administrators place the devices outside schools targeted by vandals.

Officials in Fauquier County, Va., purchased a talking camera to watch over a 1969 train caboose that sits along a Warrenton trail.

Richmond officials have 25 battery-powered talking cameras, but do not use the voice recording. The cameras have caught prostitutes on tape, officials say.

“Our goal is more in terms of the actual picture to provide police so we can take legal action,” said Britt Drewes, spokeswoman for Richmond’s Department of Public Works.

The District, which uses four motion-activated, mute cameras to monitor illegal dumping, placed a talking camera at the Marie Reed Community Learning Center in Northwest in 2003. The camera’s placement was part of a pilot project by Clean City coordinator Mary Williams, who was fired in 2004.

D.C. officials, Q-Star officials and Miss Williams say they do not know where the camera is now. The center’s principal could not be reached for comment.

The District has no plans to purchase more talking cameras, said Mary Myers, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works.

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