The Daily Record: Watchful eyes and high-tech crime tools for Baltimore

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on January 17, 2019.

If you were to travel up North Howard Street in Baltimore you might notice near Lexington Market an office midrise that’s been converted to new luxury apartments.

But inside there’s more than apartments and lofts for city dwellers.

The basement of the building also serves as the headquarters for Baltimore’s CitiWatch Operations Center, an important link in the city’s efforts to prevent, intervene in and solve crime.

It’s here that the view from more than 800 surveillance cameras stationed throughout the city is fed and monitored – everything from the movements of people, traffic, light-rail trains, road conditions and more.

Increasingly, the information, or “data” in the lexicon of police work, is being analyzed and paired at this hub with data gleaned from other surveillance technologies monitored at the operations center.

These include the city’s new gunshot detection system, known as ShotSpotter, and license plate readers deployed in police squad cars — primarily assigned to high-crime areas.

Thanks to a $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the nonprofit founded by former New York mayor and businessman Michael Bloomberg, more high-tech equipment has been purchased and is being deployed in Baltimore for the fight against crime.

This new equipment includes 60 new surveillance cameras, 25 of which are being installed in West Baltimore and 25 in East Baltimore – two areas hard hit by violent crime in recent years. Other new cameras are being deployed on the Johns Hopkins medical campus north of Fells Point and near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.

The city hopes to have about 1,000 surveillance cameras operational by the end of the year, according to Major Samuel Hood III, Director of Law Enforcement Operations, Baltimore Police Department. He heads up the day-to-day Citiwatch Operations Center, which has a $1.8 million annual budget and a staff of 22 who keep watchful eye on the feeds from cameras and other equipment.

How they are used

While the general public is largely aware that surveillance cameras — and to a lesser extent other technologies — are used by police in many cities, they may not be aware of how they are used by law enforcement and what, if any, specific benefits they yield.

Some cities use surveillance cameras reactively. After a crime has been committed police investigators will review camera footage from a crime scene to look for leads. The footage may later be used by prosecutors in court.

Baltimore has taken a more pro-active approach.

The information flowing into the Baltimore Operations Center is monitored around the clock, every day of the year, by a team of retired police officers. They use their expertise to determine if and when to directly alert patrol units to respond to potential criminal activity.

For example, operations center monitors recently spotted on a surveillance camera at Calvert Street and Lombard Street two young men approach a woman and ask if they could see her cellphone. Sensing trouble, the operations center alerted police. The suspects stole the phone and took off. But they didn’t get far. Police arrived, nabbed the two and returned the phone to the thankful victim.

Another success story that highlights the advantages of Baltimore’s surveillance network is a homicide case that shook downtown and South Baltimore residents and business owners in 2017.

After a man was shot and killed near Federal Hill, police investigators were able to get three numbers of a license tag of the suspected getaway car. Those same numbers matched those on the license plate of a vehicle used in a robbery in the Northeast section of the city. The information was run through the Citiwatch database of license tags acquired by license plate readers in squad cars. Police were able to get a match that led them to an address in the city, eventually resulting in arrests in the case.

So far this year, surveillance data has resulted in 1,219 police searches, 274 arrests, including 22 for handgun violations, and 22 guns seized.

The CitiWatch monitors also keep tabs on roads and other city infrastructure via the cameras as part of their public safety role. If they spot an issue, like a sinkhole, water main break or major traffic jam, they alert the appropriate city agency.

Sharing the data

The key to future success stories, noted Hood, is ensuring that all the data gathered, whether it is camera footage, a gunshot or a license tag, doesn’t sit in silos. It must to be integrated, matched and analyzed by experienced, watchful eyes to yield the best results.

He sees the technologies and the integration and analysis of the information gathered as potential game changers for city law enforcement and public safety.

Indeed, if Baltimore City leaders are betting on these high-tech surveillance tools – and future ones like drones and facial recognition — to play an even greater role in crime-fighting efforts, getting better at this integration and analytics certainly seems key.

More funding and manpower for the CitiWatch Operations Center may also be needed, especially as Baltimore hires more officers to beef up its depleted ranks to provide more hands on deck to interact with CitiWatch.

Ensuring Baltimore’s law enforcement can keep an edge in technology is not only prudent but must remain a high priority for city leaders.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.

Learn more about CitiWatch at the GBC’s February 20 Newsmaker Breakfast: Baltimore’s CitiWatch Surveillance Camera Program – Its Role in Law Enforcement.

Baltimore’s CitiWatch surveillance camera program consists of 1,000 cameras throughout Baltimore City, with nearly 100 in the downtown area, and has been instrumental in aiding the Baltimore Police Department in solving crimes and arresting the perpetrators in an effort to make Baltimore safer. Join the Greater Baltimore Committee to learn about the program, how it works, its coverage, its successes and plans for the future.

Hear from:

Major Samuel Hood III, Director of Law Enforcement Operations, Baltimore Police Department, Homeland Security Division CitiWatch

Elise Gillespie, Project Manager, Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice

If you go:

When: Wednesday, February 20, 2019; 7:30 a.m. registration, 8 a.m. program

Where: Greater Baltimore Committee, 111 South Calvert Street, Suite 1700, Baltimore, MD 21202

Cost: $50 members

Register to attend

This event is open to GBC member companies and employees of GBC member companies. A 72-hour cancellation notice is required for refund.

For event and sponsorship information, contact Lisa Byrd, Director of Events and Business Development, at 410-727-2820.

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