Watching the CitiWatcher: The night shift monitoring Baltimore's security cameras

It is 11 p.m. on a friday night and Scott is laughing as the shooting victim hobbles down Eager Street holding his neck and limping. He was hit in the neck and leg. "Almost every shooting I see," Scott says, "either the police was right there two minutes ago, or they're there, a block away." He's watching the video on instant replay in the CitiWatch office, a dreary basement warren under 118 N. Howard St. This shooting happened yesterday, but it's illustrative. The cop car, which Scott directed toward the victim, pulls into view as the victim flags it down.

Scott is a retired Baltimore cop with decades of police work under his ample belt. He doesn't give his last name because, he says, his day job is in a day care center, and he doesn't want the parents to know what he does at night, which—aside from engaging in some gallows humor, which everyone here does—is catch criminals and save lives.

Scott has called in three cases in the past half-hour or so—an assault and robbery, a guy who beat someone with a baseball bat, and a petty drug-dealing case.

"See that? That's my probable cause right there," Scott, says, as he replays the drug bust, pointing out a cigarette pack thrown from a parked car. "Out of that we got 75 caps of heroin, because they littered in front of me."

It's a quiet night, especially for a Friday. As the late night turns to early morning, a cold rain keeps the violence and stupidity down, says Mark Haygood, another retired Baltimore Police officer and the supervisor on this 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.

CitiWatch is commanded by a lieutenant but is not part of the command structure, because most of the employees, despite decades of police experience, are civilians. The watchers joke around about each other's hygiene and rookie cops making wrong turns, but they mainly worry about the men and women they're tasked with aiding—both in uniform and out.

The basement office sports an industrial gray-blue carpet under fluorescent lighting, and high-walled cubicles (many more than needed for the staff available, if not the cameras that would be watched). Haygood's "command station" sits on an absurd four-inch riser, the railing behind it loose enough to be dangerous. "That was like that when I got here," says Haygood, who started this job 10 years ago.

Early in the shift there are four people watching the 700 cameras. They concentrate on high-crime areas.

"You look for people where it don't sit right," says Robert Anderson. "You see a woman with a purse, walking alone, and two guys behind her, and they split apart, you know they're going to grab her purse.

"When we see that, usually when a purse gets snatched downtown, they get caught," he says.

Anderson did 28 years in the police department, many of them in the training section. "I'd watch guys I trained approach an armed subject, and using wrong tactics." He remembers a case—he's only been here four months—where he was sure an officer he had trained was putting himself in danger. He dialed the officer's cellphone. "I said, 'get your hands out of your pocket,'" he says.

A few cubes away, Reneé Wartman sits watching two screens with six moving images on each one. She's been at CitiWatch for five years, after 28 years in the state police, where she became that department's first ever African-American female supervisor before retiring as a detective-sergeant. Wartman supervised three criminal investigation units in Forrestville, Rockville, and College Park. "She's in the history books," Haygood will say later, quietly, out of her earshot.

Tonight, after Scott and Anderson leave around 1 a.m., she and Haygood will be the only eyes on the department's 700 cameras.

"See these three guys right there," Wartman says, making one screen bigger. "Mark is watching them, so he might see a crime from beginning to end."

Those three guys do nothing exciting or illegal. But another three were arrested minutes ago after Scott spotted them and recorded two separate strong-arm robberies. Scott pulls that footage up for review. The three are seen bouncing happily down a sidewalk as they approach a single male, who momentarily seems to bob his head as if caught by the same musical beat. All at once the three assailants grab, punch, and push their victim into the street, where he falls and holds out his phone as an offering. The three surround him, going through his pockets while punching, stomping, and kicking him, and then run as the camera follows them around the corner.

Scott had already called for an officer by then, but before the cop arrives the same three rob and beat another victim. This is also captured on video.

"Catching a guy on camera is as close to orgasmic as you can get," Haygood says. "Especially the violent guys."

Haygood now has his attention focused on a wagon in front of police headquarters. "When they pulled in front of the station with this prisoner he's alleging injury," Haygood says. "So they're videotaping and I pulled a camera up so I'm videotaping it too."

This is post-Freddie Gray procedure.

"We definitely changed the protocol," Haygood says. "If there's a foot chase, we're gonna watch the whole thing."

In the van is the main guy from the assault and robberies Scott just captured.

"This guy says he's schizophrenic," Haygood continues, still keeping one ear on the three separate scanners that crackle on his desk. "It's pretty standard procedure these days for people to say they're injured, so they can go to the hospital, because they know it annoys the shit out of you, plus they don't want to go to jail."

Turning away from the HQ shot, Haygood pulls up a camera at Pearl and Lexington, four blocks or so from where he's sitting. The camera takes a long time to focus on a car driving slowly away. "I can zoom in and get that tag," Haygood says. "Now if there's a shooting you have a tag."

He shows the system looking in at weed buys at a tobacco shop, then the scanner gives notice of a shooting up on Mulberry and Martin Luther King. "He's flyin'," Scott says as the car's location comes across the radio. The event gets corrected: not a shooting, a robbery. The CitiWatch crew listens for notice that the vehicle is near a camera. "We have no cameras on MLK," Haygood says. "We get a lot of blind spots."

The car never does get in camera range.

"We get more guns than any other unit in the city," Haygood says. "But no one knows we're here." The workers have not had a raise, he says, in the decade he's worked here.

Hours later, Haygood stops talking as a flip phone rings out 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' "This is our phone that rings when something bad happens," Haygood says. "We call it 'The Phone of Death.'"

It's a bomb scare on 300 E. Lombard St. Haygood says he's changed the ring tone a couple of times, "but they always change it back."

The bomb scare is an unattended package—a common thing downtown as homeless people lose or abandon their things. "If they follow procedure it'll be a long and drawn-out thing," Haygood says, focusing a camera on the action. Meanwhile there's a fight reported in the Paradox parking lot.

At 4:05 a.m. Wartman takes a call from someone in the Southwestern District. The caller wants another camera placed on a location. "No ma'am," she says, "we don't have the CitiWatch PODSS anymore."

The PODSS (portable overt digital surveillance system), Haygood says, have been turned into trash cans. He tosses an empty water bottle at the one three feet from his chair, and misses. "Damn!" he says. Check out the gallery here.

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