Public Safety & Justice

Long Lens of the Law

It's Friday night, a few minutes past 9 o'clock, and people are pouring into the 13,500-seat Baltimore Arena. They're here to see one of the biggest...
by | April 30, 2009
 

It's Friday night, a few minutes past 9 o'clock, and people are pouring into the 13,500-seat Baltimore Arena. They're here to see one of the biggest names in hip-hop--Lil' Wayne. In the rap world, street cred is important. Lil' Wayne has it. Raised amid the projects of New Orleans by his mother, Wayne sold coke, got shot and dropped out of school at the age of 14 before establishing himself as one of rap's most prolific artists. He has many admirers in Baltimore, including quite a few among the city's most notorious gangs. So a Lil' Wayne show is not only a big night for his fans. It's a big night for the Baltimore Police Department, too.

In fact, the BPD's gang unit has picked up intelligence suggesting that a quarrel among gangsters could turn violent at a concert. As a result, the police are out in force. At downtown parking garages where shootings have occurred in the past, officers with dogs are handing out flyers--and allowing themselves a peek inside cars as drivers roll down their windows. The tactical unit is deployed to look for known gang members. Officers on horseback project a police presence. But one of the most important police interventions isn't visible at all. It's playing out one block away at the city's video surveillance center.

Over the past four years, Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld has pushed Baltimore to make a major investment in closed-circuit television cameras, or CCTV, and to use them more strategically. Today, more than 480 cameras keep an eye on the city. The concentration is densest downtown, where nearly every corner has one. Monitoring the cameras is the job of a BPD unit called Citiwatch, which works out of an office hidden in the basement of a downtown apartment building. Entering it is a bit like going into Batman's cave. The unmarked entrance is off a deserted, rat-infested alley. Next comes a windowless maze that leads to a second door. When it opens, a visitor suddenly comes face to face with the city itself, displayed across a tall wall of video monitors. On a U-shaped table sit five computer workstations, each with a joystick console. (Another four workstations fill a room in the back.) The stations are manned mainly by retired cops or injured police officers on light duty. Tonight, the camera crew is getting ready for the show.

"Camera 18--that's where the fun will be," predicts Mark Mitchell, a retired cop who now serves as an overnight shift supervisor. The camera he's referring to has one of the best views of the arena. "All the pimps, prostitutes, gangbangers, scalawags and wannabe players are going to be hanging out over there tonight. I'm looking forward to it."

By 9:40, nearly all the concertgoers are safely inside the arena. The camera operators are still spying the nearby blocks. One watches a young male in cargo pants and a black jacket walking into Hopkins Plaza, a notorious robbery hotspot. Another notices a young man sitting at a bus stop next to some bushes at the corner of Charles and Baltimore, discreetly rolling some weed into a blunt. He's wearing a sweatshirt that says "See Ya." Lieutenant Matthew Johnson, who supervises the Citiwatch unit, sends a squad car over to make an arrest. When See Ya catches sight of the police, he hastily slips the blunt into a cigar case, which he tucks into his pants. Johnson calls the responding patrol officer.

"It's in his left pocket now," says Johnson.

Just before the officer walks into the frame of the video screen, See Ya moves the case into his backpack. Johnson relays its new location. As the officer steps up, the young man rubs his head as if he can't believe he's been nabbed. Questions are asked; See Ya produces the cigar case and an arrest is made. "It's just a misdemeanor arrest," says Johnson, apologetically, but you never know who you're catching: "Sometimes serious criminals make the silliest mistakes."

Camera operators don't normally chance upon a crime in this way. Instead, they're usually looking for potentially dangerous situations--the woman or senior citizen walking alone, a group of youths on the prowl. This particular evening, they're watching for more subtle signs of trouble--a gang handshake, a person looking around too much, a guy whose habit of pulling on his pants suggests he's carrying a gun.

One of the unit's best profilers is a guy named Alex. For the past three days, he's spent a considerable portion of his eight-hour shift watching a bouncer at one of the downtown nightclubs. He "just looks like he's carrying a gun on his right hip," says Alex. It's 11:11--about an hour before the Lil' Wayne concert will let out. Johnson decides to send someone over. Four minutes later, from the big screens at Citiwatch center, a uniformed officer is seen approaching the bouncer.

"He doesn't seem nervous," says Alex. Speculation breaks out among the camera operators. Might the bouncer be carrying handcuffs instead? Could he be a law enforcement officer from another jurisdiction with a license to carry a gun? On the screen, the officer is asking for ID. Then he pats the man down--and removes a gun.

"My dog is on-point!" crows Johnson.

"He's going to call now," says Alex, gesturing at the officer on the video.

Johnson's cell phone rings. Bad news. It's a toy gun.

A Baltimore Camera In Action
The Balitmore Police Department provided GOVERNING with footage from one of the city's cameras, located in a western section of downtown Baltimore. Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld provides commentary on the series of events captured on camera and how the camera monitor assisted Baltimore police.

Due to an instance of gun violence, viewer discretion is advised.

For the past decade, no innovation in policing has come with as much hype and genuine promise as video cameras. It's come with easy money, too. A significant portion of the homeland security funds the feds have sent to state and local governments has gone to install video surveillance systems. (No one knows precisely how much; the Department of Homeland Security has not kept track.) Although the ostensible point of the cameras was stopping terrorists, Baltimore and other cities knew their day-to-day value was in targeting more traditional forms of urban crime. Beginning in 2005 and drawing on a combination of DHS and asset-forfeiture funds, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley began building a camera network that he said would "free poor neighborhoods from the death grip of perennial drug dealing."

A year before, O'Malley had visited London, where more than 4 million public and private cameras observe a population of 8 million people. Visiting the CCTV control center for Westminster, O'Malley's team was impressed by the cameras' technical capabilities, including zoom lenses that could make out a package changing hands inside a car from three blocks away. A follow-up visit to Chicago, whose 2,000 cameras represent the largest camera surveillance network in the United States, convinced O'Malley that CCTV could benefit Baltimore in multiple ways. Cameras would be "force multipliers" that allow a single monitor to perform the surveillance work of multiple police officers. By capturing video of crime scenes and potential witnesses, they would aid in investigations and prosecutions. Cameras also had the potential to deter crime--especially if criminals came to suspect that their every move in public was being watched.

Since then, other cities have drawn similar conclusions. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced plans to spend $4 million on cameras, including some that will be installed on city bridges and dozens more that will go to high-crime areas. Pittsburgh also is deploying some 48 "tag readers"--cameras that can scan license plates using powerful analytic software. Buffalo, which spent $3 million on a 68-camera system last year, is planning to double the size of the network this year. Indianapolis plans to add another 40 cameras to its current 54-camera network later this year.

Camera boosters insist that cameras reduce crime. Any city that has had CCTV in place for a while can show off a highlight reel of local perps caught on camera, sometimes in quite dramatic situations. But while anecdotes of crimes solved and averted are plentiful, many researchers say the record doesn't add up to a compelling case. Recently, professors Brandon Walsh, of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and David Farrington of the UK-based Institute of Criminology, surveyed the research on CCTV and came away underwhelmed. They found that the presence of cameras is associated with mild declines in crime--particularly in the UK--but that video surveillance is strikingly effective at only one thing: protecting cars from vandalism in parking lots. A recent study of cameras at 19 sites in San Francisco found that the presence of cameras reduced property crime committed within 100 feet of the cameras--but were ineffective at greater distances and had no effect on violent crime.

As the use of CCTV expands and evolves, however, cities are using cameras in strikingly disparate ways that are bound to yield different results. Many police departments rely on cameras primarily for their value as a deterrent, leaving them unwatched most of the time and pulling the hard drive to aid investigations only after an incident has occurred. The city of Washington, D.C., uses them mostly for special events, and deploys cameras only sparingly in neighborhoods because of privacy concerns. Chicago is more aggressive. Its system is set up so that any officer can log in and watch what's happening on any camera--an open network that allows for a lot of experimentation in how to use the cameras to fight crime.

Baltimore's use of CCTV represents still another approach. The stealthy live monitoring that goes on at Citiwatch supplies street cops with a constant stream of real-time intelligence. As Commissioner Bealefeld puts it, Baltimore has made its cameras into "a proactive crime-fighting tool." At least one independent assessment agrees. According to a forthcoming evaluation by the Urban Institute--the first rigorous study to compare CCTV deployment in multiple American cities--crime in downtown Baltimore has dropped by 24 percent since the cameras went in. Moreover, researchers found no evidence that crime was merely being displaced to other parts of the city.

"The police figured out that cameras on their own don't prevent crime, people do," says Nancy La Vigne, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. Instead of treating the technology as a crime-fighting tool all its own, Baltimore has moved aggressively to integrate CCTV into its conventional operations. In particular, says Bealefeld, the department has used the cameras to target robberies and "bad guys with guns."

It's 12:01 a.m. The Lil' Wayne concert is letting out.

"It's the parking garage at camera 19 that's going to have the problems. We should have someone there," says Alex, the gun profiler.

Another monitor is watching someone at a bus stop, jiggling his jeans.

"There are a whole lot of predators out tonight, just waiting for something to happen," says Mark Mitchell, the night shift supervisor.

Bets are laid.

"I say 12:30 for the first robbery," says Steve, a narcotics officer on light duty. He's in good spirits, having called in units to arrest the occupants of a black Mercedes who were "re-upping" a corner with marijuana during the concert.

"I say 12:18," says Mark.

"I say nothing," says Alex.

The monitors skip from one person of interest to another.

"They need to move those kids along. Don't let them stand there," frets Sergeant Steve Ward, who is new to the unit.

At 12:16, the crowds are pouring out.

"I hate to say it, but this is always when people get stabbed," says Mark.

"They're moving," says Alex. "That's good."

"The parking lots are good," says Mark.

By 12:45, things are quiet. Alex feels vindicated. Mark is watching two gangly white teenagers, waiting for the light rail nearby. Most monitors have switched to the nightclubs.

"It's very quiet," says Alex.

"Calm before the storm," says Mark. "The clubs are still serving alcohol." Two in the morning--bar closing time--is the next expected flashpoint. Sure enough, at 1:48 a monitor notices a group of teenagers moving toward the Club Iguana.

"See how slowly they're moving," says Mark. Everyone agrees this is trouble. Johnson sends a patrol car over, but the group already has found a victim, another teenager. A handful of kids breaks away and surrounds the solitary teenager, whom they knock to the ground. The patrol car arrives a few minutes later, but all the teens, including the victim, are gone.

At 1:56, the radio cackles to life. A dispatcher reports a shot fired in the 300 block of West Pratt and a black Mercedes truck leaving the scene. The monitors switch to cameras in the area. They don't see the truck. But they do spot a white Nissan Altima speeding away. Frantically, they hop from one camera to the next, trying to follow the car. The pace slows when officers on the scene report finding no victim. But then one of the monitors, rolling back footage, notices a person lying bleeding on the ground. Johnson guesses that this vanished person is in the Nissan, and probably headed to an emergency room. Soon, a call for assistance comes in from the University of Maryland Medical Center. Switching over to the camera nearest the hospital, monitors spot the Altima. When officers arrive, they immediately cordon off the car as a crime scene. Outside the ER, they find the victim of a slashing. Detectives will review the tape and follow up the next day.

"Let's check our clubs, guys," says Johnson. A few are still open. But by now, the streets of Baltimore are emptying out. By 3 a.m., the city is quiet. Johnson and most of the other men go home, leaving one person to watch the city through the early hours of the morning.

It's hard to deny the appeal of a system like Citiwatch. There's something intoxicating about leaping from one camera to the next and deploying police officers at will--a whiff of omniscience, perhaps. But there's also something misleading about it. Watching downtown so closely means that other parts of the city go unwatched, including those drug-plagued neighborhoods that former Mayor and now Governor Martin O'Malley once vowed to free from the grip of crime. One such neighborhood is the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, which straddles the Western District. This is the area made famous (or infamous) by the TV show The Wire. For more than a decade, it's been one of the largest heroin markets on the East Coast. But whereas downtown Baltimore has 76 cameras, the Pennsylvania Avenue area has a mere handful--generally older equipment that goes unmonitored unless a crime is called in and footage is pulled from the hard drive after the fact.

According to Rick Sussman, whose family has run a pawnshop on Pennsylvania Avenue since 1919, the presence of even one unmonitored camera, combined with more aggressive police enforcement, can make a difference on a given street. Before the camera near his store went up, he says, the sound of drug dealers hawking their wares was so loud that even inside the shop it sounded like "a field full of crickets." Now, most of the dealing occurs a few blocks away, out of sight of the camera. That's a big improvement for Sussman. But probably not so great for the streets to which the dealers have been displaced.

Commissioner Bealefeld acknowledges the problem. In some neighborhoods, he says, putting up a temporary camera "and doing some street-level rips" may be enough to deter dealers. In other neighborhoods, it isn't. Unfortunately, he says, the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor is one of the latter cases. "They can move their market two blocks away in an instant--not in a day, in minutes," says Bealefeld.

Baltimore deploys cameras in a small number of high-crime residential neighborhoods. According to the Urban Institute, the evidence has been mixed. While crime didn't fall in those areas, it did stay level. The neighborhood with the most cameras, Park Heights, was not part of the initial Urban Institute analysis, leaving a critical question unanswered: Could more neighborhood cameras, deployed with the same sophistication as they are downtown, make good on O'Malley's promise?

This seems like a question for the regulars. A few blocks away from Pennsylvania, just above North Avenue, a camera is latched to a white pole above an after-hours club called Lil's Place. Across the street sit a gaggle of older men, chatting on a stoop. Pointing to the camera, I ask how long it's been there.

"Oh, a couple of years," one man replies.

"Does it make a difference?"

The man thinks about it a minute. "Well," he says pensively, "It do's and it don't."

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