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Big Brother is Watching

Joshua McKerrow — The Capital

Cameras funded by the Department of Homeland Security give officials a bird’s-eye view of much of Main Street and Market Square. Four are in place with plans for 40 more around the city.

If you’ve taken a stroll down Main Street in the past five months, chances are you were videotaped by a federally funded surveillance camera.

The panning lenses of the cameras – paid for with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security – are monitored at the Annapolis Police Department.

Currently there are four cameras scanning Main Street and Market Space, but plans are in place to eventually install 44 cameras through the city, said Sgt. Pamela Johnson from the city Police Department’s Intelligence and Homeland Security Unit.

“That’s the ultimate plan. We’re applying for grant funding for each phase,” Sgt. Johnson said.

City officials have not publicized the cameras, but were willing to answer questions when The Capital learned of their presence last week.

While most people contacted for this article supported the idea of surveillance cameras in public places, some brought up privacy concerns.

Cameras are cropping up all over the nation with help from the Department of Homeland Security.

The price tag for the four cameras in Annapolis was $65,000. The entire cost was paid by DHS.

Though Annapolis may not seem a likely target for terrorists, police aren’t taking any chances.

“Since 9/11, tourist areas are targeted by terrorists… ” Sgt. Johnson said. “Annapolis is the capital of Maryland. These days, I guess anything can happen anywhere. Homeland Security money is out there for agencies to take advantage of, to try to provide the type of protection that’s needed.”

No one regularly monitors the cameras in real time, although sometimes officers will do “spot-checks” on the footage. The cameras allow police to go back and review the tapes, and they’re not limited to searching for terrorists.

Annapolis police also use the cameras in criminal investigations. The footage was used to help identify a man who was breaking into downtown parking meters earlier this year, Sgt. Johnson said.

Cameras captured several images of the alleged thief, helping police get a good description.

And footage was reviewed during the investigation of last week’s burglary at Embassy Opticians on Main Street. According to police, the cameras did not pick up the crime.

The primary focus of the cameras is to monitor government buildings, public venues and transportation systems.

The next group of cameras will be placed on Duke of Gloucester Street, West Street and Taylor Avenue, Sgt. Johnson said.

The cameras look like lamps or lights. They are in clear domes perched high above foot traffic.

The department said it is careful where the cameras are placed and what images are captured. “We’re not looking in windows, we’re not watching people eating lunch. We’re very cognizant of the rights of folks,” she said.

If something suspicious does happen, the cameras are very effective at closing in on a suspect to capture a good image.

It can be a useful tool, Sgt. Johnson said.

The cameras are set to scan on basic patterns and get a good glance around the area.

“It doesn’t cover everything, just a good little section of the city down there,” she said.

But police also can take control of the cameras to look at a specific area if needed.

Opinions on the use of surveillance vary.

Meredith Curtis, spokesman for ACLU of Maryland, said the group does not object to cameras at specific high-profile public places that are terrorist targets, such as the U.S. Capitol.

But “we think the impulse to blanket our public spaces and streets with video surveillance is a bad idea,” Ms. Curtis said.

The group also supports citizen involvement in the decision to use video surveillance.

“We basically think that the growing presence of public cameras and the sense of always being watched are bringing fundamental changes to the character of our public life,” she said.

Doug Smith, president of the Ward One Resident Association, said his group endorsed the use of cameras downtown.

“They are extremely valuable, and we’re glad to see the police department putting them to use,” he said. “As law-abiding citizens, we don’t have any concern about the cameras recording things, and I think they do help.”

Mr. Smith said he thinks the department should use all available tools to help fight crime.

“The more eyeballs we can have on the street, the better,” he said.

Though some people may be concerned about the idea of bring watched, “I think the benefit of this far outweighs any of those concerns,” he said.

Most people walking on Main Street on Friday said they were not concerned by the presence of cameras.

“Today we have terrorists. We have to give up some of our liberties in order to be secure. That’s what we have to do,” said Louis Perez, who was visiting from Washington, D.C.

Paul Aksel, a Denmark man who was visiting relatives in Annapolis, said he didn’t have problems with the cameras either.

“I think it’s for safety,” he said.

Cleo and Karl Kluegel, visiting from Europe, said that cameras are very prevalent where they are from. Some cameras are fine and can help improve public safety, Mr. Kluegel said.

“Of course, there’s a fine line between safety and privacy,” he said.’

Source: HometownAnnapolis.com By LISA BEISEL, Staff Writer