The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Maryland on Thursday sued the Baltimore Police Department to stop an aerial surveillance plane to monitor Baltimore from above.
The department is planning to launch its “Aerial Investigative Research” pilot program, also known locally as the “spy plane,” during a 120- to 180-day trial run starting in May.
The ACLU of Maryland, its national organization and community advocates all said during a virtual press briefing on Thursday that the aerial surveillance plane would violate Baltimoreans’ privacy and erode trust between police and community members.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney at ACLU of Maryland, called the program an “Orwellian nightmare come to life.”
Rocah said the ACLU is arguing that the plane would violate residents’ right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and their freedom of expression under the First Amendment as surveillance would have a “chilling effect” on political activities and organizing.
The aerial surveillance plane program will not only impact Baltimore, but will also set a precedent for the rest of the nation, said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the national ACLU.
“This is one of the biggest privacy issues that I’ve seen come down the pike,” Stanley said.
If surveillance cameras are eventually mounted on drones rather than manned aircraft, it will be even easier to monitor residents, Stanley said.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said that police will only use the footage the plane collects to investigate past murders, non-fatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings during the test period.
The plane’s operator, Persistent Surveillance Systems, will compile a packet of videos upon the department’s request, and an independent civilian monitoring team will review how police use the information, Harrison said.
But after the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016 found that BPD had demonstrated a pattern of unconstitutional conduct, and the two entities entered into a consent decree agreeing to resolve those findings, community advocates are not convinced that the police department can be trusted with surveillance technology.
“When I heard about this, I thought it was insane. I thought that the last thing that Baltimore City police needs right now is more power in the form of surveillance,” said Kevin James, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, a community organizer and a hip-hop musician known as Son of Nun.
Erricka Bridgeford, another plaintiff in the lawsuit and one of the organizers behind Baltimore Ceasefire 365, said the program “undermines the work that good officers are trying to do.”
Bridgeford also said community organizations serve as “safe spaces” where people can raise concerns about issues in their communities. But with a surveillance plane overhead, she said those people will be less inclined to come forward with valuable information.
“We’re still going to do the work because nothing stops us from doing the work, but it will be more challenging to do the work when people won’t be as willing to have certain kinds of conversations with us so that we can connect them with resources,” she said.
During a recent Board of Estimates meeting, Harrison said the purpose of the pilot program would be to determine whether the aerial surveillance plane will in fact work.
The pilot program is slated to begin next month. But with Maryland currently under a stay-at-home order from Gov. Larry Hogan to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the department will not be able to demonstrate the plane’s effectiveness during this trial run, said Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney with the national ACLU’s national security project.
“The data that they’re collecting is not going to be able to show them whether this surveillance has any effect on crime because we’re not operating in ordinary circumstances. There’s no control group,” Gorski said.
Bridgeford said that the people who will be outside and under surveillance during this trial run will be the people most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as people with housing instability.
If the state employs even stricter restrictions on going outside during the pandemic, James worries that footage captured by the plane could be used to charge vulnerable people with violating state orders.
Bridgeford added that the surveillance plane was flown over Baltimore in 2016–a total of 300 hours of secret flights that were only brought to light in an article from Bloomberg Businessweek–and the city should be able to use data from those flights to determine the program’s effectiveness.
During a virtual presentation about the program on March 30, Harrison said those 2016 flights did not measure enough data to determine how effective the plane was.
“Although it flew for a few days in 2016, there weren’t enough performance metrics put in place to note whether it worked properly or whether it did not,” he said.
Harrison said he was skeptical of the plane at first, but he ultimately supported the pilot program after Persistent Surveillance Systems was able to address “all of our concerns,” including questions about privacy and how police will use the data.
He said the results of the pilot program will help the department evaluate the plane’s effectiveness.
“We will not use our opinion, but rather only the results of the pilot,” he said