- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

BALTIMORE — It is a fast and sneaky handoff: A drug dealer looks both ways, reaches into a knapsack and passes something under his leg to a man sitting next to him on stairs along a city sidewalk.

The Baltimore City Police Department captures it all on video, zooming in on the men through a surveillance camera mounted on a streetlight pole.

The employee monitoring the sale calls an officer on the beat, who arrests Melvin Scott after finding cocaine in his bag.

Scott initially denied owning the bag, but he pleaded guilty last month and received a six-month sentence for attempting to distribute cocaine.

Arrests such as his have helped generate interest in other cities about the surveillance system because it can give police a better view of illegal activity in troubled neighborhoods through live monitoring.

“Because of the camera, we can actually show that was his possession,” Lucy McKeldin, a retired officer now monitoring a camera, said about Scott’s bag, which held 17 vials of cocaine.

The surveillance system consists of about 300 cameras, with an additional 100 planned. There are about 80 portable cameras with an internal hard drive that stores digital video for up to five days.

There also are about 220 fixed closed-circuit cameras that routinely sweep areas and can be controlled manually by an operator in a police station.

Other police departments have been impressed by how Baltimore put its first 55 cameras in place 18 months ago and has not faced a lawsuit.

The District is among those using such cameras. City officials have installed about 50 since the summer, in part to curb a sharp increase in crime that began in the spring.

Baltimore started using the cameras in May 2005. Police say crime is down about 15 percent in neighborhoods with cameras.

But critics point out that many cases involving the cameras have been dropped.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has acknowledged that the quality of the images is less than perfect.

She also said that many of the arrests resulting from cameras are for minor crimes and small drug trades. For the most part, the cameras haven’t been helpful in cases of violent crime, she said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in the District, said such criticism indicates that many questions remain about the cameras’ effectiveness.

From December to July, about 40 percent of 600 charges in Baltimore resulting from cameras had to be dismissed, the state’s attorney’s office said, many because of insufficient evidence stemming from poor image quality and a lack of physical evidence.

Problems arise when cameras run automatically without a person to focus in on a crime, and the video captures only a fragment of what happened, Miss Jessamy said.

Even with good video, Miss Jessamy said, police still need physical evidence.

Still, Baltimore’s system is getting attention.

Philadelphia officials came to observe the program, and voters there recently approved a referendum to use cameras.

Officials from Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; New York; Tampa, Fla., and other cities also have visited, said Kristen Mahoney, who heads the Baltimore police’s technical services division.

Miss Mahoney said privacy lawsuits have been nonexistent largely because residents in the drug-scarred areas are tired of the crime that has plagued them for decades.

The first 300 cameras cost about $8 million, with about $2 million coming from federal homeland security grants for cameras that monitor downtown infrastructure for terrorism activity. A large portion of the other costs has come from assets seized from drug dealers. The additional cameras will cost about $3 million.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide