Months after choosing not to endorse a surveillance plane program, saying it lacked evidence to support its effectiveness, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison is giving the go-ahead to bring the plane back to the skies for a trial run in 2020.
After agreeing to a memorandum of understanding with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, the company that circles over the city with an array of video cameras, Harrison said today a pilot program will test the efficacy of the plane for 120-180 days, starting in May.
Unbeknownst to Baltimoreans at the time, the Cessna plane logged some 300 hours of surveillance time in 2016, monitoring about 30 square miles of the city. It only came to light after an article from Bloomberg. So did the detail that Persistent Surveillance’s founder, Ross McNutt, received money to carry out the operation from Texas-based philanthropists Laura and John Arnold.
Speaking at a press conference today, Harrison clarified that he objected to the way the plane was presented to citizens as a way to reduce the murder rate. It’s not yet known if it will have any impact, the commissioner said.
“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” he said.
Harrison said the footage collected by the plane, often referred to colloquially as the “spy plane,” would only be used by police to investigate past murders, non-fatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings during the test period.
Officers would not have immediate access to the video, he said. Rather, Persistent Surveillance Systems would submit an evidence packet of “historical data” upon request. And Harrison assured there will be safeguards for transparency put in place, such as an independent civilian monitoring team.
The police department will hold a number of public hearings between now and May to explain the pilot program to citizens and solicit feedback. Funding is once again being supplied by the Arnolds.
If the test period proves to be successful, it’s possible footage from the plane could be used to other crimes outside the initial four categories.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young released a statement saying he “fully” supports the effort. Young said he urged Harrison to consult with the Department of Justice before moving forward with the trial run to ensure the plane complies with the consent decree.
“Reducing crime, most importantly violent crime, remains a top priority of mine,” Young said. “The process the Commissioner has outlined is transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions.”
At the press conference, Harrison denied that he was bringing the plane back at Young’s request.
City Solicitor Andre Davis, who also appeared at the press conference, said the law department did not find any federal, state or local law that precluded the plane from returning to the skies. He said he’s “entirely comfortable” with the surveillance program.
City Council President Brandon Scott, however, came out against it. Scott, who is running against Young next year for the city’s top job, put out a statement pointing back to testimony from police that the plane produced zero pieces of evidence to solve a crime during its 2016 flights.
“A spy plane in the sky might make some of us feel safer, but it is not a proven crime-fighting tool,” Scott said. “We know this.”
He also renewed his call for a comprehensive public safety plan that also addresses the root causes of crime.
“If we care about saving lives, we have no time to be distracted from solutions that we know work,” Scott said.
While the secrecy behind 2016 surveillance proved controversial, McNutt joined forces two residents in 2018 to push for resurrecting the “spy plane,” pitching it as a way to catch dirty cops. Their efforts came in the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, which resulted in eight federal convictions for members of an elite police squad.
At an October 2018 hearing, city council members raised doubts about Persistent Surveillance Systems’ abilities, but said they ultimately had little power to thwart the BPD’s use of the company’s services.
McNutt returned again in 2019, meeting with Harrison to discuss bringing back the plane. The police commissioner was non-committal after seeing a presentation, telling The Sun “[t]here is some work to be done.”
The next month, McNutt said he had lined up funding from the Arnolds to help cover the cost of three planes, extra police and 40 analysts to review footage.
In October, the Greater Baltimore Committee announced its support for reviving the “spy plane,” and one of its board members, Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., released a survey purporting to show that three in four residents would support “a program to conduct aerial surveillance over the city of Baltimore to reduce serious crimes like murder.” (The biased wording of the questions was later scrutinized.)
A coalition of organizations that includes the ACLU of Maryland, the Maryland Office the Public Defenders, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and others penned a letter in response, saying the program was “sinister” and disregarded a right to privacy.
Today, the ACLU of Maryland and Coalition for Justice, Safety & Jobs released a statement opposing the decision to “put Baltimore residents under continuous, aerial surveillance.”
“And while the BPD says that it is only interested in using the data in certain cases, the data collected is not limited to those crimes (or any crimes), but tracks everyone, everywhere, all the time,” the groups said. “Residents’ private information is held by a completely unaccountable, private, for-profit company.”
They also skewered Persistent Surveillance Systems for the way it has misrepresented its goals for the footage.
“Once data like this exists, the pressure is always and inevitably to expand the content, expand its use, and expand access – never the reverse. There is no reason to think this time will be any different.”
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