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Baltimore’s Failed Surveillance Regime

Supporters of more government surveillance often say that a little liberty needs to be given up for security. Try explaining that to the people of Baltimore. Maryland’s largest city already has a vast surveillance apparatus that watches its citizens from the sky and the ground. That regime has only continued to expand—but residents aren’t any safer.

Last Friday, Baltimore announced [1] that it will nearly double the number of roadside cameras its police use. Later this month, the city will add 19 new red light cameras, 19 new speeding cameras, and nine new cameras intended to find large trucks on roads they aren’t supposed to be on. This will bring Baltimore’s total roadside camera tally to 100.

In 2013, the city ended [2] a 160-camera program after it was determined that they were issuing tickets to drivers who were not actually violating any traffic laws. Then, when officials decided to start the current red light camera system in 2017, the cameras initially [3] issued double tickets to violators.

Abuses of these tools aren’t unique to Baltimore. The city of Chicago was caught [4] speeding up its yellow lights so the cameras would give out an additional 77,000 tickets per year. In some 13 states [5], red light camera manufacturers have been charged with bribing local officials for contracts.

If the corruption wasn’t bad enough, these cameras have routinely failed to make roads safer. Despite the ubiquity of its surveillance, Maryland traffic deaths have continued to increase in recent years. In 2015, traffic deaths jumped [6] 17.3 percent, and they climbed [7] even higher in 2016.

Meanwhile, accidents at camera-equipped intersections have increased in major cities like Philadelphia [8], Chicago [9], Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. [10] That’s part of the reason why the city of Miami voted [11] to end its program late last year, and the Iowa State Senate banned [12] the use of traffic enforcement cameras earlier this year.

Baltimore officials are either ignoring the data, which show traffic cameras cause more harm than good, or, more plausibly, they just want to extort money out of drivers. After all, since being reinstated in August of last year, the cameras have put [1] $12 million in the city coffers.

And Baltimore’s assault on due process and privacy rights isn’t limited just to the ground.

In 2016, the Baltimore Police Department entered [13] into a secretive contract with an Ohio-based company called Persistence Surveillance to man a Cessna spy plane flying over the city. The plane was used for an array of different police investigations without any oversight—the public didn’t even know it existed. Despite this creepy technology, 2016 was the second deadliest [14] year in Baltimore’s history to that point. The following year was even deadlier [15]: Baltimore saw its highest homicide rate ever.

Public outcry eventually got the partnership between the Baltimore police and Persistence nixed. But now Mayor Catherine Pugh is entertaining [16] the idea of reinvigorating the creepy cooperation between the two.

Putting aside the fact [17] that spy planes are typically reserved for military use, there may be some legitimate domestic uses for aerial surveillance, such as searching for a missing person in the woods. But the vast majority of the deployments that have been proposed would erode privacy rights without proactively stopping crimes. For example, police want to use [16] the Cessna snooping plane during the Baltimore Marathon, putting everyone who attends that event under their eye in the sky.

A benevolent surveillance regime watching over a large public gathering sounds comforting, but the data show it has no effect on deterring crime. A five-year study [18] in New York City found that surveillance cameras had no notable impact on crime prevention. Additionally, Las Vegas is one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the country, and still has higher [19] crime rates than cities of a similar size.

Not only does a prominent camera presence not deter crime, it’s also inefficient at solving crimes after the fact. In London, one of the most surveilled cities in the world, only one crime per 1,000 CCTV cameras is solved [20] each year.

Baltimore’s attempts to keep citizens safe through an Orwellian deployment of spying tools has been a complete and utter failure. Other cities should take note that trust-building community policing is a far better way to create a peaceful society than an omnipresent surveillance state.

Dan King is a Young Voices Advocate, journalist, and digital communications professional based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared at National Review, Reason, and The American Conservative.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Baltimore’s Failed Surveillance Regime"

#1 Comment By Ian On March 12, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

In my experience, cameras have a huge impact at trial, if not during the investigative process. When there’s a video, the jury’s decision is much easier than their ordinary task of weighing testimony. I’m an attorney in a small town, with the downtown area on camera. I’ve personally seen the videos used to convict numerous defendants who were caught on tape.

#2 Comment By Amy On March 12, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

Not to mention the surveillance blimp!


…which crashed a few years later into a farm after escaping its tether, much to the glee of the local population.

#3 Comment By JonF On March 12, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

Baltimore resident here. The article omits an even more frequent use of aerial surveillance: the city PD sends its helicopters into the air at the drop of a hat. Back in 2010, I had a bicycle stolen. The thief was actually caught in the (by building security) and had tried to argue that the bike was really his, even handing over his wallet to the security people. When he saw the police coming in the distance he hopped on the bike and fled. The cops put their chopper up in the air, to look for a stolen bike. Well, I appreciated the effort I guess, and would have liked to get the bike back, but I’m sure a search for a $200 bike cost the taxpayers a lot more more than that. Oh, and the perp was later arrested based on the fact he had left his wallet with his ID behind, though by then he already fenced the bike.

My impression overall is that all this aerial surveillance is quite useless in most situations: the police just like their toys.
However, that said, I can’t see much of a privacy argument here unless the surveillance is actually peeping into people’s windows. When we go out into public we spaces we cease to be in private places. Why is it any worse to have a camera (whose surveillance footage will eventually be deleted if there’s no reason to save it) seeing us than to have all manner of strangers seeing us?

#4 Comment By Ted W On March 12, 2018 @ 4:53 pm

The current ground camera network is largely incomplete, missing vaste swathes of the worst crime neighborhoods. What’s more privacy advocates have caused the city to place bright blue lights on top of every security camera, which significantly impacts their effectiveness.

The police plane flew for 210 hours over select neighborhoods of the city, and in that time provided information on five murder suspects. That’s less than two weeks of total operation in a few neighborhoods, for information on FIVE murder suspects. That’s not a failure, that’s an incredible success.

We can’t keep making decisions because they’re “creepy”. You know what they author doesn’t mention? The fact that a helicopter flies over your head every fifteen minutes (that’s louder and more intrusive than a plane by the way). And the alternative to passive surveillance is active police investigation.

The author isn’t arguing for less surveillance, he’s arguing for less effective, more intrusive policing.

#5 Comment By Donxon On March 12, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

Here’s what non-criminals.dont understand about most criminals: they cannot be deterred. They either think they’ll get away with it or don’t care, either way your deterrent simply doesn’t enter into their thought process.

#6 Comment By Uncle Billy On March 13, 2018 @ 7:30 am

As a Baltimore resident, I can tell you that all these red light and speeding cameras are about revenue, not safety. I can accept this, but I wish local government would be more honest.

#7 Comment By mike On March 13, 2018 @ 2:29 pm

seat of pants feeling in bronx ny is that so many cameras in stores and lobbies must deter crime. videos of perps shown often on tv and web must make an impression on the bad guys that they maybe on candid camera.

#8 Comment By Eric On March 13, 2018 @ 4:37 pm

Another Baltimore resident here…

You site traffic accidents up in 2015 and more so in 2016 as if it’s an indicator the speed and redlight cameras aren’t effective. What’s funny is that you also state Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland and with the most number of cameras shut them down in 2013. So naturally accidents would go up in 2015 and 2016. Show me real stats from the state that in 2008/9/10/11/12 there was a significant increase and your correlation might hold water. Otherwise it’s not a valid argument.

In almost every other municipality where these types of devices are installed there’s a significant decrease in speed and red light running related crashes. Allow me to upload images and I’ll show you stats.

Yes there’s corruption in government. Yes these cameras rake in the cash. But the short is, the majority are violator funded. If people didn’t speed (MD is 11mph above the limit) or run red lights, they wouldn’t get tickets.

#9 Comment By James C. Walker On March 14, 2018 @ 9:49 am

The rea$on$ Baltimore u$e$ $peed & red light camera$ are obviou$, and tho$e rea$on$ have NEVER included $afety.

James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

#10 Comment By Kevin Beals On March 14, 2018 @ 6:01 pm

As a criminal defense attorney who has worked on numerous cases involving passive police surveillance, I can safely say that we should all be very, very concerned about when, why, and especially how our federal and local governments conduct surveillance.

The problem with this kind of widespread surveillance isn’t just limited to violations of due process–but rather the entire structure of our supposedly “free” society and its relationship to its government. I have often heard variations on the lazy question, “If you have nothing to hide, what are you afraid of?”

I would respond with, “If I have nothing to hide, then why am I being watched?”

As Professor Amsterdam so eloquently put it, “The question is not whether I am hiding something every time I draw the blinds. Rather, it is whether every time I enter a room, must I draw the blinds, on pain of surveillance if I do not?”

Surveillance subtly changes citizen behavior in myriad ways, but more importantly, it also creates a “thin wedge”–that is, an opening for justifying ever more invasive surveillance in more areas we used to consider sacred. If we must expect being recorded everywhere we go–where is the line? Where is the “phone booth”–a public location where we can expect some degree of privacy?

Who watches the watchers? How long until city-contracted “Amazon Security” drones are buzzing over every city block?

These are not hypothetical questions anymore, and we as citizens ultimately decide what kind of society we want to live in: a free society or a totalitarian state. It’s really that simple–just ask China.