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Cameras helping police keep neighborhood safe

March 07, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

With a few mouse clicks and keypad punches, Officer Gerry Kendle pulls up a vignette from the 24-hour, real-life police drama on his home theater-sized screen.

It's the latest way for the Hagerstown Police Department to fight crime: Nine cameras set up on and around Jonathan Street, recording every second of the day.

"This couple's rough-housing," Kendle said Thursday while pointing at the screen. A man and a woman shoving each other had just walked outside the J Street Bar and Grill at about 11:55 p.m. Monday.

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"He's drunk," Kendle said, pointing to another man in a white suit, stumbling down the sidewalk. Then, a man wearing a black and yellow jacket and running at full speed blows past three officers who were standing outside the bar after responding to a fight call.

"There goes the guy. ... There's the officers there. ... He didn't go far," Kendle said, pulling up another camera shot that shows an indistinguishable pile of police and suspect from a few blocks away.

The officers found a .22-caliber handgun and crack cocaine in the man's possession, and now the moment is caught on digital-quality video that is admissible in court.

The camera system has been operating for about a week and a half. It has proved useful on several occasions, Kendle said.

In addition to the crack/handgun arrest Tuesday morning, police have verified the driver of a truck that caused $3,000 in damage to a fence, and recorded a crack buy and a robbery of a pizza delivery man, Kendle said.

The cameras are posted on street corners in white domes at street-light level. An officer sitting behind the desk at the substation on Murph Avenue can read a license plate clearly from four blocks away, keep an eye on a problem house in the neighborhood or watch suspicious people hanging out on a street corner, Kendle said.

The cameras and supporting equipment - including the 42-inch plasma screen and 480-gigabyte video recorder - are being paid for by $60,000 in grants to the police department, Officer Todd Webster said. Some of the equipment and services were donated by the city and Antietam Cable, he said.

While the equipment is powerful, there are limitations, Kendle said.

"I mean, when you put something automated, it's not always going to get what you want," he said.

If an officer is sitting at the computer, a joystick can be used to point the camera and zoom in on action. Unattended, the cameras follow preset motions and can be pointed in the opposite direction, recording nothing.

Raymond Cooper, 53, lives in Bethel Gardens Apartments and said he's getting used to the idea of having cameras in the neighborhood.

"It takes away people's privacy, but it helps. ... I'm all for safety," he said.

Cooper's sister, Peggy Cooper, 65, however, thought the new system was a waste of money.

"I can't stand 'em. I think it's degrading," Peggy Cooper said, noting that she didn't think the white domes would help either. "If they're going to sell (drugs), they're going to sell."

Albert "Butch" Monroe, 45, was riding his bike through the neighborhood where some of his family members live. He said he thought the cameras would deter criminal activity.

"It would keep the drug dealers off the street. ... They're on the street all day, all night," he said.

The police department intends to make the video that is taken accessible to any city police officers with computers. Bethel Gardens Apartments, which in conjuction with the Hagerstown Housing Authority asked police for the cameras, will also have access to the video, Kendle said.

Kendle said the video also can serve as a way to coach police. If an officer makes a mistake, it will turn up on video, he said

"The camera doesn't lie," Kendle said.

In some ways, the cameras are better than their police counterparts, Kendle said.

"This is a major upper hand," Kendle said. "It's nine sets of eyes on the street, and it's 24 hours a day. They don't sleep."

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