Two Years After West Baltimore Riots, Maryland Transit Administration Refuses to Release Surveillance Footage

The transit administration said releasing the footage would present unacceptable security risks by divulging where its cameras are located and how they pan and zoom.

by Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun / April 28, 2017

(TNS) — When police and local residents began squaring off near Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore two years ago today — precipitating widespread rioting, looting and arson in the city — it was captured in part by a network of government surveillance cameras in and around the nearby metro station.

What the footage shows, however, is still a secret.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which operates the station and its camera system, has refused to release any of the footage despite ongoing requests by The Baltimore Sun and questions from city officials, activists and others about the role the MTA and the city police department might have played in escalating the tensions on the day of 25-year-old Freddie Gray's funeral.

The MTA said releasing the footage would present unacceptable security risks by divulging where its cameras are located and how they pan and zoom.

It won't say how many cameras it has at Mondawmin, in Baltimore or throughout the state. It said releasing information about the cameras, many of which were funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, would advantage terrorists looking to attack transportation infrastructure.

Civil liberties advocates say that's ridiculous, and possibly illegal.

"It's completely absurd that two years after Freddie Gray was killed, the video footage of the unrest developing has never been released," said David Rocah, senior attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. "That is insane and totally unacceptable."

Rocah said the MTA operating a surveillance system with no public oversight should concern local lawmakers as much as other law enforcement surveillance in recent years, such as the city police department's use of an airplane to conduct covert aerial surveillance last year.

"MDOT's Homeland Security advisors and MTA Chief of Police, who counsel us on matters of security to protect Maryland citizens, have advised us it would be a security risk to provide the number of cameras or to release video or still images from these cameras to the public," said Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, the MTA's parent agency.

The confrontation between police and local residents and students near the mall and metro station on April 27, 2015, which followed widespread protests around Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody, quickly escalated and eventually spread into other areas of the city, leading to a night of rioting, looting and arson. Tens of millions of dollars in damage were done to the city.

Since then, the city has released footage from that day from its own vast network of surveillance cameras. City police officers have been equipped with body cameras, and footage from shootings have been released. A broad conversation about transparency and accountability has taken place under U.S. Department of Justice oversight of the police, and legislators in Annapolis have considered mandating disclosure of surveillance techniques by law enforcement across the state.

The MTA, however, has largely escaped scrutiny, and the circumstances around the clashes at Mondawmin have remained murky. City and state officials, academics and other outside policing experts, as well as protesters, youths and teachers from nearby Frederick Douglass High School, disagree on the cause.

Some say the crowds, including students, were out of control and met with force to prevent looting at the mall. Others say the police showed up en masse and the MTA sent away buses based on rumors, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion that led to the confrontation.

When the Sun first sought the footage under the state's Public Information Act, it was told by the MTA that the footage couldn't be shared because it was relevant to open criminal investigations by the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office. After a year, the Sun noted the statute of limitations for bringing charges related to minor offenses had run out, and asked that the MTA redact from the footage any portions that related to felony crimes still under investigation and provide the rest.

The MTA then said releasing the footage would facilitate a "terrorist attack" and that it could not be released without the permission of the Transportation Security Administration, under Homeland Security. However, the TSA said it did not have to consider the request because the state had already determined it was not going to release the footage, which the MTA acknowledged.

In lieu of the video being released, the Sun requested that a reporter be allowed to view the footage at MTA offices, to gain a sense of how the police had mobilized, how MTA buses came and went, and how crowds at the scene grew over time. The request was denied.

The Sun requested to see a selection of still images from the cameras. That request also was denied.

The state's Public Information Act ombudswoman, Lisa Kershner, intervened on behalf of the Sun, but Kershner does not have the power to force a state agency to release information and the MTA did not change its position.

The state transportation department said it spent $138 million on security from fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2016, including $26 million from the state's Transportation Trust Fund.

In its 2015-2020 Consolidated Transportation Program, it said the "security of customers and highly visible transit infrastructure is the focus of a $102 million anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness program being implemented by the MTA," with enhancements including "improved video monitoring of transit stations and vehicles."

Rocah, of the ACLU, said the MTA's refusal to release the footage represents "a flagrant misuse of the security exception in the public records act to deny information that is clearly required to be disclosed."

©2017 The Baltimore Sun, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.