Remember that police surveillance plane from 2016? There’s a public hearing next month about bringing it back

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    The surveillance plane’s two “orbit areas” over Baltimore. Photo via Police Foundation/BPD.

    Baltimore lawmakers have scheduled a public meeting to hear from local residents about a plan to put a police surveillance plane back in the air—the same one that operated for months over Baltimore before police grounded it after it was exposed in 2016.

    The hearing is set for 4 p.m. on Oct. 16 at City Hall. Members of the council’s Public Safety Committee pinned that date down at their meeting on Monday.

    While officials two years ago ended the covert operation of the plane—two wealthy Texas financiers had funded its operation for 90 days without any public announcement from police, Bloomberg first reported—a coordinated group of individuals have been pushing this year to bring it back in the name of both fighting crime and potentially surveilling police for misconduct, The Sun first reported.

    Ross McNutt, whose Dayton, Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance Systems operates the Cessna plane, said in an interview in August that the technology could help both with crime deterrence, offering police snapshots from the sky of suspects and their locations and oversight of cops by “turning the cameras around” on them.

    “The police on duty have no expectation of privacy, and if there’s an incident, we can go back and look at things and verify and provide information,” he said.

    While the camera isn’t powerful enough to identify individuals’ faces or pose a real privacy threat from that high up—”they look like Tic Tacs,” he said of subjects spotted by the plane—he’s also bullish on its ability to help police track suspects in pursuit from a bird’s-eye view, thereby helping reduce crime. If the city were to re-deploy the plane, he predicts his company could help the city cut violent crime by 20 to 30 percent. Much of that would come through deterrence after criminals realize they’re being watched, he said.

    That pitch has resonated with the Community Support Program, a group of community members around the city lobbying for bringing the plane back. Local residents Joyous Jones and Archie Williams have spearheaded the campaign under the umbrella of their group Community With Solutions, hosting dozens of community meetings, town halls and briefings with city officials, as well as business groups like the Greater Baltimore Black Chamber of Commerce and the City Chamber of Commerce.

    “All of the community associations that we’ve met with support it. All up on the Westside, everybody is in support of this,” said Jones.

    “It was done before behind the backs of the people” in 2016, she said, when the plane was quietly humming above Baltimore for several months. But that’s not enough reason to doubt its utility, she argued. “Just because it was done incorrectly doesn’t mean it’s an incorrect solution.”

    Even with McNutt’s argument that the camera’s resolution isn’t strong enough to target anyone individually, there are still obvious privacy concerns with keeping a plane high above the city. The Outline‘s deep dive on the subject noted the American Civil Liberties Union met with Persistent Surveillance Systems in 2013, and the ACLU opted not to endorse the company. And even while the company deletes all images from its server within 45 days, per its privacy policy, police keep backups of any files passed on by the company, and can retain those indefinitely.

    “The police department is not typically looking through our data,” McNutt said in response to that concern. “We are presenting from our data what we’ve found” to police.

    Bringing it back would cost $1.6 million per year, McNutt said. He told The Outline a private investor has offered to finance it here, but declined to say who.

    Jones said their group has pitched the plan to numerous city officials, including Mayor Catherine Pugh, Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young,” City Council Public Safety Committee chair Brandon Scott and state Sen. Jill Carter.

    Lester Davis, Young’s chief of staff, said in August that scheduling a hearing on the plane would not signal “any kind of indication” of council members’ support for the effort, but rather would “give folks an indication of pros and cons as [they] relate to the program.”

    A priority with any system that aerially surveils the city, he said, is to “make sure that people’s civil liberties are protected and that you’re not violating anyone’s rights.”

    “We can’t know whether or not a program like this is even operationally effective until we have a public hearing.”

    Ethan McLeod
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