Philadelphia delegation goes to Baltimore to seek pointers on surveillance cameras

A monitor explains the surveillance system to (from right) Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Philadelphia aide Noelle Marconi, and the four Council members.
A monitor explains the surveillance system to (from right) Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Philadelphia aide Noelle Marconi, and the four Council members. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ)
Posted: January 22, 2013

Darrell L. Clarke likes how Baltimore has been fighting crime in the last decade with a huge network of surveillance cameras tied into a central police command center.

He has admired Baltimore's strategy since before he helped persuade his mentor, former Mayor John F. Street, to start a similar program in Philadelphia in 2006.

Clarke, now entering his second year as Council president, is less enthusiastic about how that program, troubled by technological problems from the beginning, has been run in recent years under Mayor Nutter.

"We have tried consistently to get this back on track without having gotten a real explanation as to where we go," Clarke said. "I just think if this is something we're going to do, we have to commit to it . . . in a full and meaningful way."

Clarke - with Council colleagues Cindy Bass, William K. Greenlee, and Curtis Jones Jr. and a contingent of staffers - returned to Baltimore last week to take another guided tour of the vaunted Citiwatch program, coming away with, as Jones, the majority leader, said, "municipal envy."

Two reporters were invited along for the field trip, the first such outing of Clarke's presidency. He clearly hopes to pressure the Nutter administration to upgrade a program that has "never realized the expectations we had."

Asked whether he had discussed the camera program with Nutter - a Street nemesis - Clarke said he had raised the issue during budget testimony for several years running.

"I'm the type of person, I will ask you about it in a public hearing, in a public forum, as many times as I feel necessary," he said. "But it's gotten to the point where I felt the need to personally go out and see one of the best models."

Administration officials acknowledge having problems with the system - going back to some of the original decisions made under Street - but say they are committed to integrating surveillance cameras into policing.

(The director of Citiwatch said he met with Nutter and his chief of staff about the Baltimore program when he was in Philadelphia for a conference in October.)

After a one-year pilot program, cameras were installed in 2007 under an $8.9 million contract with Unisys Corp. Police soon complained of poor image quality from the wireless cameras. Interference from buildings and the urban landscape made an entirely wireless network impossible, and the city switched to a hybrid wireless and fiber-optic network.

In 2009, the city ended the contract with Unisys, and the Division of Technology took over.

"We inherited these problems," said Michael Resnick, director of public safety. "We have to fix them."

Last summer, Controller Alan Butkovitz released a damning audit that said less than half of the cameras in the city were working. Butkovitz suggested the nearly $14 million spent on the program would have been better used hiring new police officers.

Resnick said two contractors had been brought on, one for equipment and one for maintenance. Now, 150 of the city's 200 cameras are working, and many of the currently inoperable ones were knocked out by Hurricane Sandy, he said.

The Police Department is deciding which cameras to fix first, and it wants to link with surveillance cameras from Amtrak, SEPTA, the airport, the port authority - eventually creating a network of 1,000 cameras.

Baltimore also worked through the kinks of technology and the urban environment, and had the benefit of a better fiber-optic network and federal funding in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Baltimore now has 622 cameras, and 97 percent were functioning on Thursday, the day of the Council members' visit. The quality of the pictures they were shown, even the nighttime footage, was excellent.

"For a city the size of Baltimore to have [622] cameras online with a 97 percent operable rate, it's clear that we have to do better," Clarke said.

He said he planned to be engaged on the topic, but he would not say how much money he thought the city should spend. He did say the city could pursue private partners.

Clarke's perch as president has brought new and "somewhat surprising" expectations for citywide leadership, he said.

Nutter and Clarke have not developed anything near the fruitful partnership that Street, as Council president, enjoyed with Mayor Ed Rendell, and they have yet to be seen working in harmony on any major policy issue.

In trying to dictate public safety policy, is Clarke pushing the bounds of Council president into mayoral territory? A running subject of conjecture among City Hall observers is whether Nutter would leave office for a position in the Obama administration, elevating Clarke to mayor.

"When the newspapers referred to me as the second most powerful elected official in the city, people took that and turned it into reality," he said. "Having people come to me and talking about these broader issues, I think it's my responsibility to try to weigh in."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2739, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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