“Trash-Cams” Catch Illegal Dumping in Baltimore
In Baltimore, Maryland, police are adapting new, hi-tech methods of fighting crime by using hidden cameras to catch criminals. Along a normal street in the city, there has been much activity involving the illegal dumping and improper disposal of garbage and waste. In one such incident, one litterer insisted it was not his intention to illegally dump the toilet by the side of the road. He claims that he just left it there for “Moe,” a homeless man who needed a toilet to live in a vacant home.
“That was his story,” said city housing official Thomas Waugh.
That was the story the man gave when officials confronted him after he was caught on a hidden surveillance camera that monitors the area to catch any illegal dumping. Waugh didn’t believe the lame excuse for a second. Not that it would have made a difference anyway, since leaving the toilet would still have constituted an illegal dumping charge. The man is currently facing criminal charges for his actions.
Thomas Waugh is the head of the Baltimore Housing Department’s Special Investigations Unit, and as such he hears a lot of far-fetched stories like this one. He also reviews several of the incriminating photos that come in to his office. Since their installation in 2009, photos snapped by the city’s array of “trash-cams” have led to 48 criminal convictions, resulting in fines, community service, even jail time.
City crews are now looking to install even more of these cameras to catch more criminals. By the end of this month, an additional 15 cameras will be fully operational. These cameras are different than the cameras utilized by police to monitor the city, and more cameras may be soon on the way: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s proposed budget, released Wednesday, includes money for 10 video cameras to document dumping.
Trash-filled lots and alleys have long been common in parts of Baltimore, and Waugh doesn’t pretend that he and his nine investigators can eliminate the problem. But he says the cameras — which can be moved around as needed — provide a useful enforcement tool.
Images of license plates can prompt quick confessions, and the hope is that people’s behavior will change as word gets out that discarding junk improperly can have real consequences.
It helps that some of those spied dumping don’t exhibit much savvy. One man was warned about a camera by a passer-by. The man looked straight at the camera — click — and kept tossing debris from the bed of the pickup truck. Click, click, click. Charges are pending.
In another case, investigators visited the home of a man whose vehicle was photographed. He wasn’t home, so they left word for him. Later, while reviewing more images from the camera, they saw his car again. The man had returned to continue dumping — this time with cardboard over his license plate.
The man received a 10-day suspended sentence, court records show, and was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service. But the dumping led indirectly to a much stiffer penalty: Because the conviction violated the man’s probation, housing officials say, he was sent back to jail for two years.
The cameras have a deterrent effect, particularly at night, when the flash pops as a vehicle pulls up but before dumping can occur. But people rarely seem to notice them during the day, and that’s fine, says Jason Hessler, assistant commissioner for litigation, whose lawyers work with Waugh’s team.
“We’re looking to catch people,” Hessler said.