BPD to hold info sessions on ‘spy plane’ pilot program

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The surveillance plane’s two “orbit areas” over Baltimore during its first test run in 2016. Photo via Police Foundation/BPD.

Nearly two months before bringing a surveillance plane back to the skies, the Baltimore Police Department will hold three public presentations on what it is calling the “Aerial Investigative Research” pilot program.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced in December he had approved a trial run for the “spy plane,” as it is colloquially known, for 120-180 days, starting in May, to test its effectiveness.

“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” he said, adding he previously expressed reticence about the plane because it was presented as a way to solve the murder rate.

Footage collected during the trial period would only be used by police to investigate past murders, non-fatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings during the test period, Harrison said.

And instead of officers having immediate access to footage, a packet of videos would be compiled by the plane’s operator, Persistent Surveillance Systems, upon request. The commissioner also pledged to have an independent civilian monitoring team to review how the department uses information from the plane.

Of course, the plane has flown over the city before–only in secret. In 2016, Persistent Surveillance Systems circled around the city in a Cessna for 300 hours, using an array of cameras to film the streets below.

The plane’s surveillance only came to light in an article from Bloomberg Businessweek. 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.

It was ultimately grounded, but McNutt returned in 2018, following the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, to bring the plane back, saying it could be used to catch dirty cops. As journalist Brandon Soderberg has reported in The Appeal, it’s possible that already happened during the 2016 flights.

Attorneys for Jawan Richards, who pleaded guilty to a gun charge and assault in the second degree for allegedly striking an officer and unmarked car in 2016, believe video captured by the plane exonerates their client, who was shot by police during the incident.

Police claimed “Mr. Richards attempted to flee the scene, rapidly reversing his vehicle into the unmarked police vehicle located at the rear of his vehicle, causing Detectives Hankard and Vignola to open fire towards the vehicle, striking him once in the neck.”

After reviewing the video, Richards’ attorneys, including former candidate for state’s attorney Ivan Bates, argue “[t]here are just mere seconds between when the police pulled up and jumped out and when they shot my client.” Police were making the stop because Richards was allegedly not wearing a seatbelt.

Prosecutors presented Bates with still images from the incident, but he said many lawyers were not aware full video was available at the time. Richards’ attorneys have filed a motion to vacate the plea.

McNutt returned again last year to make his pitch to bring the plane back.

The pilot program had supporters in Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and former City Solicitor Andre Davis, who retired on March 1. But City Council President Brandon Scott and the ACLU of Maryland came out against it. Scott said it was “not a proven crime-fighting tool,” while the civil liberties group raised concerns about residents’ “private information is held by a completely unaccountable, private, for-profit company.”

The BPD’s presentations will be on the following dates:

March 11, 6:30-8 p.m. at Dorothy I. Height Elementary School, 2011 Linden Ave.

March 16, 6:30-8 p.m. at Morgan State University’s Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management, 4100 Hillen Road.

March 19, 6:30-8 p.m. at Green Street Academy, 125 N. Hilton St.

Brandon Weigel

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