Report: BPD’s Aerial Surveillance Program ‘Holds Potential,’ Needs Further Study

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

A foundation devoted to researching policing strategies has concluded the Baltimore Police Department’s much-debated aerial surveillance program wasn’t a secret and was just an extension of investigative technology already in use. In fact, the foundation says in a new report that the program should be subject to “rigorous evaluation” so the BPD can proceed with its use, and develop guidelines in case other American police departments want to surveil their cities by plane, as well.

T.J. Smith, chief spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said in an emailed statement on Saturday night that “our goal was to experiment with a potential crime fighting and crime solving tool. The report reflected that.”

Smith’s email came after the Sun’s Kevin Rector broke the news of the Police Foundation’s generally positive report about the BPD’s 2016 pilot program, through which a plane circled Baltimore about 8,000 feet overhead for more than two months, snapped pictures and fed them to police and prosecutors to aid them in their investigations. Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems operated the plane.

The world first learned of the program through a Bloomberg investigative report, rather than straight from police. Naturally, the surveillance plane became the subject of much speculation and criticism around the city. Privacy advocates and some community leaders contended it was a secretive invasion of privacy and blamed city leaders for not disclosing that it was happening. Police staunchly defended it, saying the program was useful for fighting crime in the city.

The Washington D.C.-based Police Foundation notably helped facilitate funding for the pilot program from Houston philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, as first reported by Bloomberg. In exchange for its assistance, the foundation received the privilege of getting to review the pilot program.

In its newly published review, the foundation is generally supportive and calls for additional study. “From its limited review, the Police Foundation has concluded that persistent surveillance has the potential for increasing the clearance of crimes and reducing the cost of criminal investigations.”

According to the report, the department made the surveillance program operational from June 15 to Aug. 18, 2016. The Cessna plane made 64 flights above Baltimore, capturing more than 758,000 images of the city. Its findings were cited in police briefings in 105 cases, including 15 shootings, five homicides, 42 traffic accidents, 16 hit-and-runs, three stabbings, three carjackings and four dirt bike complaints.

Some specific examples of its utility: The images helped police to pursue leads and advance 10 murder or shooting investigations by following suspects’ or witnesses’ tracks; in 35 of the 42 traffic accidents the camera captured, police were able to identify the driver of the responsible vehicle; and one homicide investigator found the tracking of a suspect’s movements to be a “significant timesaver” compared to having to comb through CitiWatch camera footage.

Police have defended the program as an extension of CitiWatch, which captures footage on surveillance cameras and has been operating on Baltimore’s streets since 2005. The foundation agrees.

“BPD officials contend that the [Baltimore City Surveillance Program] was never intended to be secretive. Consistently, they view it as an extension of, and complement to, its CitiWatch program,” the foundation’s report said. “In its limited review of the BCSP, the Police Foundation found no evidence to contradict the BPD’s position.”

The ACLU of Maryland, which seeks to ensure that people “can lead their lives free from discrimination and unwarranted government intrusion,” according to its mission statement, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday morning. The nonprofit’s senior staff attorney, David Rocah, was critical of the foundation’s findings in an interview with the Sun.

The foundation offered ten recommendations, including that the police department “affirm its desire” to evaluate the program and pick a “competent research partner” for its study, assess the program’s constitutionality and make sure they explain it to the public and make information about it available online.

The police department ended its trial phase for the surveillance program on Aug. 18. It’s no longer active. However, Smith said in the Saturday statement that police will now  “comb through” the Police Foundation’s recommendations to determine the program’s fate. “We will continue to evaluate each and work on plans to implement should we adopt this technology,” he said.

The Police Foundation’s full report can be read here.

Ethan McLeod
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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 Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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