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 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 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 issued double tickets to violators.
Abuses of these tools aren’t unique to Baltimore. The city of Chicago was caught speeding up its yellow lights so the cameras would give out an additional 77,000 tickets per year. In some 13 states, 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 17.3 percent, and they climbed even higher in 2016.
Meanwhile, accidents at camera-equipped intersections have increased in major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. That’s part of the reason why the city of Miami voted to end its program late last year, and the Iowa State Senate banned 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 $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 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 year in Baltimore’s history to that point. The following year was even deadlier: 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 the idea of reinvigorating the creepy cooperation between the two.
Putting aside the fact 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 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 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 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 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.