Baltimore Police’s surveillance cameras operate like a game of roulette.

Most of the 770 CitiWatch cameras can rotate 360 degrees, recording footage like a sprinkler watering a lawn. To capture a crime, the camera has to be pointed at the right place at the right time.

When shots rang out at Brooklyn Homes on July 2, four cameras were positioned near the courtyard where the worst mass shooting in recent Baltimore history took place.

But, there was a problem. The only static camera — aimed straight at the Brooklyn Day party — was blocked by a 45-foot elm tree.

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The tree likely obstructed police from key footage that could have been pivotal to identifying shooting suspects in a case where police say “at least” half a dozen suspects are still at large.

A stump that is left after a tree was cut down in Brooklyn Homes, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Days after the shooting, the tree was gone.

What happened to it? And what does losing a tree mean for the Brooklyn Homes community?

After analyzing hours of CitiWatch footage, reviewing public records and interviewing experts, here is what we found.

Who cut the tree down, and why?

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City cut the tree down, but won’t say why or when.

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The tree had been at the Brooklyn Homes property since at least 2007, according to Google Street view, and can be seen in CitiWatch footage on June 30, 2023, the day before the block party. The footage was obtained by The Banner through a public records request.

Google Street View shows that the CitiWatch camera has been at the intersection of 9th Street and Elarton Court since at least 2019.

What footage could exist?

Thirteen cameras are located on or near the Brooklyn Homes community, according to the city’s CCTV camera database. To capture the moment of the shooting, investigators’ best hope was the camera at the corner of the courtyard, labeled camera 3003. It’s an older CitiWatch camera that offers a static view into the courtyard where the heart of the block party was.

Cameras to the west, north and south of the party’s location had 360-degree views that might have captured the shooting. Camera 3003 was fixed straight on the scene of the shooting two days prior, according to surveillance footage released to The Banner.

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The remaining cameras likely caught the scene’s aftermath, when hundreds fled Brooklyn Homes.

Because BPD hasn’t publicly released footage from that night, it’s unclear what the CitiWatch cameras actually captured during the shooting, though Commissioner Richard Worley has lauded the agency for using “hundreds of hours of video” to help make arrests in the case.

Why place the camera there?

“If the tree was such an issue, why wasn’t the camera located in different spots?” asked Darin Crew, director of restoration for Blue Water Baltimore, in an interview with The Banner. Blue Water Baltimore is an environmental nonprofit that plants trees across Baltimore.

When The Banner posed a similar question to the Housing Authority, the department said the agency follows the recommendations of city contractors for placing security cameras.

Prior to adding cameras to a Housing Authority property, BPD conducts a walkthrough and makes recommendations on camera placement based on available resources and the property’s layout, BPD spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said.

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How often does a tree block a CitiWatch camera?

Every year, according to Baltimore Chief of Forestry Daniel Coy, the city runs into problems with trees blocking CitiWatch cameras, especially for the older cameras, like camera 3003.

“The cameras, in a lot of cases, were put in decades ago,” Coy said. “Well, trees have changed a lot over the decades, right? They’re living. They grow.”

In the case of camera 3003, the tree had been there well before the camera was erected.

Coy said the city’s forestry division and BPD have “a nice, streamlined process” to solve these conflicts. Cutting a tree down is a last resort. They first try to trim branches, add new cameras or move existing cameras. They have even replanted trees in the past.

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Removing a tree isn’t just a last resort for ecological reasons, but also for financial reasons.

“It’s weird because removing a tree is not cheap,” said Crew, who regularly leads tree-planting initiatives throughout the city. “I would imagine it’s $1,500 to $3,000 to remove that tree.”

What does this mean for the Brooklyn Homes community?

Based on recent pictures of the elm tree, Coy said it appeared to be in good health and in a prime location — offering shade at a main walkway in Brooklyn Homes. However, he could not guarantee the tree’s health as he did not personally evaluate the tree nor does his department have jurisdiction over trees on housing authority property.

What Coy can guarantee is that needlessly removing healthy trees is detrimental to public health, particularly in low-income communities.

With heat-related deaths rising year to year, Coy said, trees offer a significant cooling effect to its neighbors. Through photosynthesis, the plants absorb heat from the air and release cooling humidity, dropping the temperature significantly for those seeking shade beneath it.

Having trees in neighborhoods also can have significant impacts on crime, with study after study showing that more vegetation corresponds with lower crime rates, including in Baltimore.

What does camera 3003 show now?

Though camera 3003 does not continually rotate like newer CitiWatch cameras, it can be redirected to face different directions. And it’s not facing the courtyard anymore.

Footage from a Baltimore Police CitiWatch camera shows from footage recorded on Aug. 20, 2023. It was obtained by The Banner through a public records request. (CitiWatch footage from the Baltimore Police Department) (Brenna Smith)

As of Aug. 20, 2023, the camera was facing down Elarton Court, away from the recently cut tree stump.

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