Talking Camera Tackles City Crime
Baltimore's New Surveillance Cameras Will Scold Wrong-Doers

Associated Press | November 17, 2005

(AP) The city's newest breed of surveillance camera will do more than keep an eye on vandals, litterbugs and other miscreants.

The cameras will also give the crooks a talking-to. Baltimore's Board of Estimates has approved five talking cameras - armed with motion detectors, a bright flash and a recorded warning, as part of an effort to curb quality-of-life crimes, especially illegal dumping.

When the solar-powered cameras detect motion, they will issue a scolding: "Stop. This is a restricted area. It is illegal to dump trash or spray graffiti here. We have just taken your photograph. We will use this photograph to prosecute you. Leave the area now."

While that is the default message, the city could choose to record a collective admonishment from nearby residents or even a personal threat by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The cameras cost $5,000 apiece and will be added to an already expansive network of surveillance equipment in Baltimore. City officials would not say where, specifically, the cameras would be placed.

But the idea is to surprise litterers with a booming voice, most likely coming from a light pole. The camera will also snap a still photograph and save it to a storage card, which police could use to identify a suspect.

"It's quite startling," said Ken Anderson, president of California-based Q-Star Technology, which developed the camera.

"It's generally going off in the middle of the night, (and) people generally aren't expecting it."

About 150 cities use the cameras to control graffiti, loitering and illegal dumping, Anderson said. Cincinnati has installed 20 cameras, mostly in residential areas and city parks.

"We're not looking to catch them, we're looking at it as a deterrent and it has served us well," said Linda Holterhoff, executive director of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, a nonprofit organization that launched the camera program about a year ago.

The technology hasn't always worked seamlessly. Residents of one Cincinnati neighborhood complained about the camera's volume until the city turned it down. Placement can be tricky, as vandals move around corners to escape the lens. And the camera can't distinguish a human culprit.

"We have pictures of deer," Holterhoff said.

The cameras constitute a minor addition to Baltimore's surveillance network, which includes about 175 police cameras that record street-level activity 24 hours a day. This year, a camera in east Baltimore helped police investigate a homicide, allowing them to identify hard-to-find witnesses.

Other cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, have ramped up use of video surveillance as an investigative tool. But privacy advocates say the cities should hire more police officers instead.

"It seems to be an atmosphere of, 'We will watch you no matter what, even if you're innocent,"' said Melissa Ngo, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Baltimore officials said they had success testing two of the cameras this summer. Dummy cameras will be used at some sites, but city officials said nothing will distinguish a phony from the real thing, and both will reprimand their subjects.

"It's kind of a forced accountability," said Anderson, the camera's designer. "You tend to be more accountable if someone's watching."