If you’re walking down the street on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, make sure to smile because chances are you’re being watched on a crime camera.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced this week that 12 new video cameras would be added to Pennsylvania Avenue, expanding CitiWatch, the actively-monitored crime camera program. The addition brings the total number of cameras in the program to 538.
“Our CitiWatch program has been instrumental in supporting the work of the men and women of the Baltimore Police Department to reduce violent crime,” Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. “The cameras are a force-multiplier that enable us to do more to protect the citizens of Baltimore.”
The CitiWatch program has been online since 2004, but Baltimore has made an effort recently to increase the number of cameras that are being actively-monitored. While individual police districts have the capability to monitor cameras themselves when needed, the city has moved to a centralized monitoring strategy.
A group of specially trained monitors and analysts — including retired and off-duty police officers — keep tabs on camera feeds 24 hours a day from a base location.
“Obviously you can’t monitor all 538 cameras all the time, so there is a monitoring plan based on crime [statistics], and that’s how monitoring resources are deployed,” explained Sheryl Goldstein, director of Baltimore’s Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice. “We have a crime analyst that looks at crime trends in all the camera areas, and based on that there is a monitoring plan every day which the [CitiWatch] center uses.”
Goldstein said the program costs approximately $1.3 million per year, which includes the annual cost for camera maintenance, monitoring and practical considerations such as building rent and utilities for the center. In addition, despite a budget deficit, the mayor’s fiscal 2012 budget fully funds the CitiWatch program.
Over the past few years, Goldstein said she and her team have focused on making the program more cost-effective and have realized a cost savings of roughly $1 million per year by renegotiating contracts. The savings has also led to increased monitoring hours.
The 12 new cameras being installed on Pennsylvania Avenue are funded by a Federal Justice Assistance Block Grant and the One Maryland Broadband grant, which is administered by the state’s Howard County. A total of 60 cameras have been installed in Rawlings-Blake’s 18-month mayoral tenure, all being paid for using various grant monies.
The CitiWatch program has been showing its value, city officials said. In 2010, the video feeds from the cameras kicked off investigations for more than 125 arrests for violent crimes. Overall, the cameras were involved in approximately 1,280 arrests during the year.
In addition, the cameras have been shown to reduce crime by up to 25 percent in coverage areas. Goldstein said the percentage was compiled from a study done by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group that investigates social and economic issues in the United States. The study involved the cities of Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Goldstein added that the statistics for Baltimore were based on the 80 cameras installed in the city’s downtown business area.
“I would say our lesson learned ... is having the cameras actively monitored and using them as a tool to alert police on the street to respond to incidents before and as they are occurring has had the most significant impact in reducing crime,” Goldstein said.
When asked about community reaction to the city’s devotion to the CitiWatch program and any underlying current of “Big Brother” complaints, Goldstein indicated the opposite was true.
“Baltimore, unlike some other cities ... has not really had that problem,” Goldstein said. “The biggest issue is we have communities that want cameras and we’re not able to put cameras in. We’re fortunate that there is a tremendous amount of community support for the camera program.”
Pennsylvania Avenue won’t be the last area in Baltimore to receive cameras. An additional 30 cameras in the neighborhoods of Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, South Clifton Park and Darley Park are planned for later this year.
Goldstein said that an RFP is out to acquire bids for the installation of the new camera equipment. The cameras should be online in about six months, she said.
In addition, while the cameras are all powered by electricity, Baltimore is hoping some may go green in the future.
“We’ve been exploring solar power and are going to test it in the near future,” Goldstein said. “Even if we can use solar as a backup, that is something we want to experiment with.”