Cameras keeping watch on downtown Hagerstown

September 20, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

HAGERSTOWN - Smile, downtown residents, patrons and passers-by -you're on camera.

On Friday, the Hagerstown Police Department activated its surveillance camera system that is set up in about a dozen locations in the city's downtown area, said Lt. William C. Wright III, the department's downtown commander.

Wright said the goal is for the cameras, installed along several blocks around City Hall, to become a long-lasting crime deterrent that will make people feel safer when they come to Hagerstown.

"Downtown is really the heart of the city, and people's idea of Hagerstown is based on their opinion and view of downtown Hagerstown," he said. "We can't have a police officer on every corner all the time, but now, I can see most of them."


Obtaining cameras to monitor the streets has long been a priority for Hagerstown Police Department Chief Arthur Smith and the department.

The Hagerstown City Council in April approved spending $105,000 in grant money to install them.

Such cameras already were operating in the Jonathan Street area. Last year, cameras were installed along Jonathan Street following a series of high-profile crimes that included the December 2002 fatal shooting of Carl Anthony Wallace of New Jersey. The police department and some Jonathan Street residents have credited the cameras for a reduction in crimes involving drugs and violence.

Some critics have said it pushed criminal activity into other nearby neighborhoods, including downtown.

From a room tucked away amid dusty boxes and other storage items on the fifth floor of City Hall, police can monitor the activity of nearly anyone who is on a downtown street through a computer monitor, a 42-inch flat-screen television and a high-tech control board.

Each camera is able to capture images from more than an entire city block and can focus on objects such as a door of a building or a car from about 500 yards away. Wright said such a feature will be used most when the department is targeting frequent crimes involving the drug trade and prostitution.

Wright said uniformed officers typically have a problem catching drug dealers in the act downtown because "the bad guys" are looking out for police officers. With the cameras, police will, in many cases, have their proof saved on a digital recording system that holds footage for up to one month, long before approaching the alleged criminals.

"They (drug dealers) have spotters on bicycles, walkie-talkies from Wal-Mart that work really well. They have all that stuff," he said. "Now, it doesn't matter."

It did not take long for the camera system to begin paying dividends. About 15 minutes after the initial training session, downtown officers made two misdemeanor arrests based on activity they saw on-screen.

"Those kind of arrests wouldn't have been made without this system," Wright said.

The cameras themselves are difficult to notice for many.

"They're so innocuous," Wright said. "I was talking to (Hagerstown Chief Code Enforcement Officer) John Lestitian out here and told him we were on camera. He started looking all around for a while."

Though some in the Jonathan Street community have called cameras there an invasion of privacy, Wright said he believes downtown residents will welcome them because of their potential for reducing crime.

"The only people who wouldn't like them are the people doing illegal things," Wright said. "People are out in public (downtown). They don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

He said the cameras already are widely supported by the business community. Wright said several owners agreed to allow police to install cameras on their buildings, and others have discussed purchasing an additional camera for the department for installation at their businesses.

Wright admitted the officers, including himself, still are in need of some practice with the system. He said they are getting used to certain aspects, such as setting each camera to rotate automatically and focus on activity, how to save important footage and how to efficiently work the sensitive positioning mouse.

"This is new to all of us," Wright said as the focus of the camera briefly jumped around with little control. "The information we've had so far was just to get us started."

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