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October 24, 2007
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Baltimore County seeks high-tech camera feeds to cruisers

By Laura Barnhardt
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. - High-tech surveillance cameras capable of providing real-time feeds to police could be coming to parks, playgrounds and business districts in Baltimore County.

The county would join Baltimore City in using cameras to deter crime - an approach that has drawn the ire of some privacy and civil liberties groups.

One Baltimore County Council member wants officers in patrol cars to be able to download digital images from Webcam systems at shopping centers and public places, and county police say they are interested in the idea.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said the county should seek a federal homeland security grant for the new cameras. "I want to make sure that if we invest in cameras, we're investing in the latest technology," he said.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. will meet with Kamenetz in the next week to discuss the possibility, a spokesman for Smith said.

Kamenetz, who pushed through legislation requiring surveillance cameras at large shopping centers after a private school educator was shot and killed in a parking garage at Towson Town Center mall two years ago, called a news briefing yesterday to demonstrate how the new cameras are being used at the Hunt Valley Towne Centre. The cameras are also being used at The Avenue at White Marsh.

The new type of surveillance cameras features software that does some of the monitoring for police or security companies; for example, notifying them when the system detects possible suspicious activity.

Kamenetz said he has identified a $300,000 federal homeland security grant that the county should apply for to buy some of the cameras. The cameras cost $5,000 to $6,000, but that price does not include software, installation or, in the case of private businesses, monitoring, Kamenetz said.

After a child was burned by acid that vandals had poured on playground equipment at an elementary school, the county began installing video surveillance cameras at its five regional parks in September. Kamenetz said it made sense to look into buying the more advanced cameras for the parks and playgrounds at schools. He also said a mobile camera could be taken from place to place, as police saw fit, in response to rashes of crimes.

For example, he said, if there had been several bank robberies in a particular area, the surveillance camera could be positioned there.

"I think this is what the future of policing could be," Kamenetz said.

No Internet access

County police cars are equipped with laptop computers, but they don't have Internet access, said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for Baltimore County police. He said that the department was "actively looking" at the new type of cameras and that Police Chief James Johnson believes security cameras are a "valuable tool."

"We want to make sure that we use the best technology for us," Toohey said.

Baltimore began using video cameras citywide in 2004. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center opposed them, saying the surveillance system infringes on privacy rights and hasn't proved effective in fighting crime or terrorism.

Advocates of the cameras say that residents don't have a right to expect privacy in public places. Many of the cameras in the city are marked with blue strobe lights.

In Baltimore City, there are about 400 security cameras, said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Officials are considering upgrades to incorporate some of the newer features, such as "gunshot recognition technology" that automatically turns camera angles to the direction of a possible gunshot, McCarthy said.

"Mayor Dixon believes the security cameras across the city now have paid greater dividends than we ever expected," McCarthy said. "Universally, communities feel they are an effective tool."

But the city's surveillance system has drawn criticism. Some neighborhood activists have asked that some cameras be removed, either because they don't want to be labeled as having a crime problem or because they feel the money should be spent on officers patrolling the neighborhoods. And State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has questioned the effectiveness of the cameras.

"It was a great 60-second sound-bite for the politicians when it was announced with great fanfare," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy. "But we've seen no correlation in violent crime going down. Cameras haven't been the magic bullet."

Many of the images from the surveillance cameras are poor quality, making them virtually useless as identification in court, she said.

Kamenetz said that one of the benefits of the newer cameras is that they are far clearer.

Tax incentives

Kamenetz said he did not plan to immediately introduce legislation that would require the Internet-based security cameras at shopping centers. He said offering tax incentives to those willing to invest in the technology was a "logical next step."

Joan G. Hatfield, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, said while some of the larger shopping centers can afford the most advanced cameras, requiring them could put smaller companies out of business. Hatfield said that adding a police officer or security guard can be more effective than a camera.

It will be important to determine where the cameras are "most needed and what will be best for the customer and the owner," said Hatfield, who is also president of the county's Small Business Resource Center.

The cameras at Hunt Valley Towne Centre look like light fixtures, barely visible above shops and restaurants.

The center began installing the digital surveillance cameras about two years ago, and The Avenue at White Marsh began using them several months ago, said Henry Tyrangiel, head of Computerized Management Systems, the firm that installed both systems.

The cameras at Hunt Valley Towne Centre can record 45 days of activity, zoom in to read license plates and allow managers to watch the video using personal digital assistants.

The private security guards who work at the shopping center don't have Internet access to the cameras, but Tyrangiel said they would soon be able to access the system on the computer screens on their Segway scooters.

Copyright 2007 The Baltimore Sun

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