Harrison declines to join Greater Baltimore Committee in endorsing spy plane, says it lacks evidence

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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.

With yet another push underway to bring Persistent Surveillance Systems’ plane back to Baltimore skies, the city’s police commissioner said today he remains skeptical of the technology originally piloted in 2016, unbeknownst to the people it was surveilling.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison told reporters this morning at City Hall that because the spy plane lacks evidence that it can help reduce crime in cities, he’s not endorsing it.

“I was hired because I was an evidence-based police chief, and so I’m in favor of evidence-based solutions,” said Harrison, sworn in to lead the troubled Baltimore Police Department in March. “That has never been tried in an American city. It is an experiment.”

He stopped short of opposing the option outright, but in response to a question from The Sun’s Kevin Rector, he did say he’s “opposed to the way this came out and was presented to Baltimore.”

He said he isn’t stopping anyone from trying to test it on their own and sharing data with BPD: “I did not tell anybody that they could not fly their plane. They’re welcome to fly it. I just can’t endorse something that’s not evidence-based.”

Harrison’s remarks come as the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of influential business, religious, nonprofit and community leaders, is offering its support for Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems to fly planes over the city to capture photos of subjects and feed them to police.

The company has already worked here before in 2016, when BPD collaborated with McNutt’s company in secret. The Cessna plane logged some 300 hours of surveillance time, monitoring about 30 square miles of the city for extended periods. Bloomberg broke the story exposing the program, which prompted outrage from city residents and leaders.

Ross McNutt, founder and president of the firm, unsuccessfully pushed a grassroots campaign to bring it back in 2018. Council members were critical of his approach at a public hearing on the idea last year, with Zeke Cohen (District 1) saying it was “disturbing” to find out about the technology from the news two years earlier, and Ryan Dorsey (District 3) characterized it as “an absurd level of Big Brother-ism.”

A year later, McNutt has said two Texas philanthropists, Laura and John Arnold, are offering to fund the reprisal for $2.2 million annually for three years. The pair paid for the first test run in 2016.

Noting the Arnolds’ recent offer to again finance the plane, the GBC put out a 656-word “position statement,” dated Oct. 15, that said in part, “Given the current level of violent crime, it seems reasonable that a new technology that is being offered as an added public safety investigative tool at no cost to the city should be tried for the benefit of all citizens.”

The group touts Baltimore as a candidate site for a “proof of concept” stage for McNutt’s venture, which the GBC also pointed out has not been used for law enforcement in American cities.

“Baltimore has a history of innovation and can proudly lay claim as a ‘City of Firsts’–a proving ground for new innovation and technologies that have positively impacted America and its citizens,” the GBC’s statement said. “The application of aerial surveillance to support law enforcement needs to be tested somewhere—why not Baltimore?”

The organization said it does not believe Baltimore should wait until the “Eye in the Sky” has been tested elsewhere, nor does it believe the technology poses a privacy risk for individuals.

Harrison said he met with the Greater Baltimore Committee last Friday, but that it was a private meeting and therefore he would not share details about it.

Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church and a GBC board member, this week released results of a survey that found three in four Baltimoreans support–as the survey worded it–“a program to conduct aerial surveillance over the city of Baltimore to reduce serious crimes like murder.” 

That question was followed by a more detailed description: “A small aircraft flies over the city and provides images that track vehicles and people to and from reported crime scenes. The information is then provided to the Baltimore Police Department to help them solve crimes. An outside independent oversight group would ensure that the system is not being abused, and the program would be entirely paid for by a private donor.”

The poll found 72 percent of respondents still supported the idea. Hathaway Sr. funded the survey with a $40,000 grant from the Abell Foundation.

Goucher College pollster Mileah Kromer and Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater (the paper first reported the results) were among those who flagged the biased wording in the questions.

 

Mayoral candidate and former Deputy Attorney General of Maryland Thiru Vignarajah held a press conference with faith leaders to push for aerial surveillance shortly after the poll results were released.

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 they were “deeply disappointed to learn of [his] readiness to disregard the privacy rights of Baltimoreans under the guise of crime fighting.”

The groups called the proposal “sinister,” citing privacy concerns.

“Your proposal demonstrates a distrust for all Baltimoreans, whose every move would be subject to the watchful eye of the government. Under your proposal, the City of Baltimore could and would retain information about the lifestyles and livelihoods of everyday Baltimoreans—which Church, Synagogue, or Mosque someone attends; whether an immigrant sends money home at a particular Western Union, and how often; whether a child spends weeks and weekends at different homes; who attended which protests against the City. The possibilities are endless.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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