Pictures of old Baltimore – one a headshot of local jazz icon Eubie Blake, one an overhead of a packed Memorial Stadium, one a candid snapshot of downtown bustling with men in dark suits – dress the sidewalk window displays of The Atrium apartment building, a massive structure that sits at the southwest corner of Howard and Lexington streets and previously housed the city’s downtown Hecht Company department store. These black and white photos offer a pleasant accent for the streetscape, but within the bowels of this building resides the home base for a program that collects far different images of Baltimore and consequently showcases them only in courtrooms.
On July 17, 2013, two dozen or so Baltimore City high school students participating in Citizenship Law Related Education Program’s (CLREP) Law Links program visited CitiWatch, a Baltimore Police Department (BPD) endeavor housed in The Atrium’s basement. Law Links places Baltimore students in full-time, paid internships at law firms and law-related agencies for the summer as a way to educate kids in the law and prepare them for the professional world. In addition to the work, CLREP organizes field trips to law-related sites, including the State House in Annapolis and the Baltimore City Circuit Court. CitiWatch, where the data of Baltimore’s 625 street surveillance cameras feeds to and is monitored by police officers, has been a field trip site for Law Links since 2010. In that span, however, it is arguable that the talk and debate over city surveillance cameras and privacy has never been hotter than today, particularly given the Boston bombings and subsequent investigation earlier this year.
“We chose to include CitiWatch in our summer program curriculum because it is a valuable resource for city residents and those who work in the city,” CLREP Associate Director Shelley Brown wrote in an email. She added that CitiWatch and Law Links intersect on a “number of related issues and topics” like “privacy, search and seizure, evidence collection, and the role of all these things in court.”
Students on this year’s trip march down one flight of stairs to the basement, then they pass a police substation and walk through an enormous, vacant hall, before entering CitiWatch’s operation. The base’s first room is large and consists of 17 workstations where individual officers view camera footage on side-by-side widescreen computer monitors.
Each monitor displays up to 36 camera feeds, and each station can control any given camera in the city. Each camera captures action in 15 to 30 frames per second every minute of every day. Most (if not all) cameras are able to pan, zoom, and tilt. Some capture High Definition footage; some are adorned with flashing blue lights. When they are unmanned, CitiWatch says the cameras “focus on statistical hot points.” The monitoring stations all have an Instant Replay feature. CitiWatch’s crew is mostly retired police officers. The casing of these computers is black, the carpet of this room is a crisp blue, a blue that is reminiscent of but a shade lighter than the officers’ dress blues, which no one here is in. When the Law Links interns enter, a man wearing a polo and slacks is seated at a nearby station with a bag of microwave popcorn lying on its side before him; the other stations are empty.
The kids are led and seated in an adjoining room with four stations set on one long, crescent-shaped desk that opens to, or faces, a massive screen, which is really six sizeable screens forming one behemoth.
CitiWatch began as a public and private partnership in 2005 under Baltimore’s then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. Several million dollars in funds came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the project started with 50 cameras positioned downtown; from there the camera network was sewn through the city’s “most violent neighborhoods” and several public housing projects, according to its tech provider, DVTEL.
CitiWatch’s mission objective, says DVTEL, is as follows: “Post-event analysis is not the primary focus of the CitiWatch Program. The program staff engage in pro-active [sic] monitoring with the goal to prevent violent crime when possible and to direct police officers to the scene while providing maximum intelligence on what arriving officers will find and how best to deal an unfolding situation.”
BPD Sgt. Paul Kidd, standing by the giant screen and addressing the Law Links interns, says as much but qualifies Baltimore as unique – he says other city surveillance camera systems are reactive, whereas Baltimore’s is proactive so to “safeguard life and property.” A highlight film he shows illustrates how the camera system is proactive within the police force.
First, the cameras serve as eyes for police on the street. Two sterling examples in the highlight film were of two disturbance calls. While officers were en route, camera operators viewed the scenes: both disturbance calls were in fact mobs of teenagers marching through downtown – on one occasion the mob was armed with sticks. The camera footage showed that the response was inadequate and backup was necessary. Without the cameras, Kidd adds, the responding officers would not know what they were entering into.
Also, the cameras have led the cops on the street. Once a camera picked up a police officer approaching a car downtown, and when the camera operator at CitiWatch tried to call the officer on screen, the operator found out that it was actually a police impersonator on camera; a squad was called to the scene. There was also an instance where cameras spotted a drug deal occurring between two people in the front seats of a car. The camera zoomed in and the operator counted how many heroin caps were being dealt; the responding officers stopped the deal, searched the dealers, and knew exactly how many caps to look for.
Last, the cameras partner with police officers. After several attempted rapes occurred on a particular street, a squad parked in the alley, and a camera kept an eye on the area at night. In the film, a woman is seen walking down the street at night when a male comes out from the shadows behind her; the video operator radioed the waiting-squad, the attempt was thwarted, and the man was arrested.
When the film concludes, the students do not ask any questions.
“The kids are aware of ‘blue light’ cameras but don’t realize the extent of their importance and effectiveness in catching criminal activity,” Brown added.
Before the end of the field trip, the students explore the main room, in which a few more officers are at workstations. One officer shows students how he monitors drug deals in one neighborhood, and a student asks why anyone would deal in view of a camera.
The officer says he asked that once to a kid caught dealing on camera. The kid told him, “We know the cameras are there, but you can’t watch all the cameras all the time”.