Baltimore’s hip Federal Hill neighborhood boasts historic red-brick rowhouses, a magnificent view of the Inner Harbor, and a charming variety of independent shops and restaurants. But these things all bring crime with them. While many neighborhoods in the city—whose experiment in depolicing has sparked a resurgence of violence—have met the challenge with private security, hiring a patrol is not the only option. Federal Hill residents have instead made use of their home-security cameras.
Such devices as the Amazon Ring and Google Nest doorbells have exploded in popularity in recent years. Citizens are using their footage to help the police, and even to catch criminals themselves. Brad O’Brien, pastor of Jesus Our Redeemer Church in Federal Hill and public safety chairman for the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association (FHNA), created a form where residents can register their home security cameras. This does not grant anyone access to the footage, but it allowed O’Brien to build a map of the neighborhood’s camera footprint. After a crime occurs, he can contact residents who might have relevant footage. He passes what they send him on to the city police department. Currently, he says, 154 homes with about 277 cameras have registered.
“What you would normally see is that a victim would have to go to social media and say, ‘I was carjacked or I was sexually assaulted or I was robbed at gunpoint. Does anybody have any camera footage from this intersection or from this area?’ Well, that’s actually another traumatizing experience, to have to go on social media and relive what happened in search of a neighbor to help,” O’Brien says. “Our thought was we could hopefully reduce the burden on the victim and increase the effectiveness of the police by creating this network.”
Package thieves are a growing problem in many urban areas, and Baltimore is no exception. “We noticed on social media there were people asking about packages being stolen—like all the time. There is a team of four or five people that I work with regularly. We saw that as low-hanging fruit. We created a form where people could submit that they had a package stolen.” They’re asked to submit any images they might have of the theft. “Then we collect that information, and we try to see if we could match up individual suspects on multiple accounts,” O’Brien says. Victims also submit the receipts of their purchases, so that O’Brien and his associates can tally up the value of the thefts. Once this hits a total of $1,500, they take the evidence to the police.
“If you have evidence showing the same individual taking a total amount of over $1,500, well, that becomes a felony. And at that point, the State’s Attorney’s Office has been very clear that they would be willing to pursue charges on that,” he says. “Over the last year, we’ve identified three or four regular package theft suspects. And I would say that three of them are behind bars. And then another one is in the process of having the data built out.”
Other neighborhoods in the city have yet to adopt such an initiative, though the city police department sponsors a program called Citiwatch, in which the city refunds part of the cost of a camera in exchange for access to its footage. Some people are uncomfortable with the loss of privacy; the Federal Hill initiative lets residents maintain control over their footage but also help fight crime.
O’Brien’s efforts don’t come without risks. Anthony Barksdale, who was recently named Baltimore’s deputy mayor for public safety, expressed skepticism about the FHNA camera program. Even package thieves can be part of a broader criminal network, he said, and people who get in their way might face repercussions. “Maybe it’s me, but I worry when citizens decide to do police work,” he observes. When I relayed this concern to O’Brien, he responded, “It’s one of those questions of: are you going to do the right thing or not?” But he stresses that he treads carefully, particularly when drugs are involved, because of the greater levels of violence associated with the drug trade.
When your local police department can’t keep you safe, what is your best alternative? Is it a patrol conducted by professional private security or a citizen’s crime-fighting program, like the one O’Brien helps run? It’s hard to say. But in Baltimore, being passive is not an option.
When ordinary citizens develop private workarounds to compensate for the government’s failure to ensure public safety, it’s an ominous sign. Such solutions may keep life livable in the short term, but they disguise a much deeper problem. “Why aren’t we doing a better job of using our voice and using our vote to try to change things based on the taxes we’re already paying for these services?” asks O’Brien. He acknowledges that this is easier said than done. “Everything here is a long and difficult process. It drains the energy out of people who are trying to do good.”
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