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Baltimore Police Back Surveillance Plane Pilot Program

Baltimore Police stated their support for a pilot program that will use three private surveillance planes over the city. City council members continue to raise concerns about the proposal.

by Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun / December 20, 2019
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(TNS) — Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said Friday he is supporting a pilot program to use three private surveillance planes over the city, reviving a controversial program that had been shelved since it was revealed to have been secretly in use three years ago.

Harrison as recently as two months ago said he was skeptical of the plane, as members of the Greater Baltimore Committee endorsed the program and a prominent pastor presented a poll that claimed community support.

The planes are being pushed by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold through a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems. A 2016 Bloomberg report revealed that a plane had been secretly flying over Baltimore and feeding information to police for months.

The 2016 pilot program was halted amid criticism of its secrecy and condemnations from civil liberties advocates who say the system represents a sweeping overreach of surveillance that violates individuals’ rights. But with the proper oversight, Harrison said Friday that it could represent “another tool” in the police department’s fight against rampant violent crime.

“I’m obviously well aware of the plane’s controversial history,” he said. “I’m looking forward from hearing from our community and to educate them on what this is and what this is not.”

Harrison anticipated launching the pilot in May, following a series of community meetings. The planes will not be used for real-time surveillance, he said, but will rather help officers investigate past shootings and robberies.

He said the pilot will be funded through philanthropic funding, not tax dollars. Harrison also pledged to ground the plane if it doesn’t generate results. The pilot will last between four and six months.

Since 2016, supporters have been trying to relaunch the program, pitching a three-year, $6.6 million program that would put three planes over the city simultaneously. Each would have the capability of covering 32 square miles at a time, and fly 40 to 50 hours a week. Harrison said there could be “multiple” planes involved in the pilot, but that he doesn’t yet know for sure.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in statement he fully supports Harrison and that the plan outlined Friday is “transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions.” The commissioner said Young did not push him toward his decision.

City Solicitor Andre Davis said the law department is “entirely comfortable with the program.”

Baltimore City Council members have raised concerns for years that the surveillance plane company hasn’t provided them information that proves the efficacy of such a program.

“This, to me, seems like the latest of what I would call drastic reaching,” said City Council President Brandon Scott. “The concerns about it being effective are still there.”

The council will be closely monitoring data as it comes out, he said, and whether the police department’s use of the plane aligns with the federal consent decree.

“The plane may make some of us feel safer,” Scott said. “But there’s no data that it makes us safer — and that’s what the council will be monitoring.”

Gov. Larry Hogan said earlier this year that he supported the plane, and backers have also cited support from dozens of victims, community groups and business organizations.

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, has been a vocal critic. “What is being created is the permanent surveillance of everywhere that everyone in Baltimore goes every time they walk out the door. That has always been the design and intent and this further clarifies it. And that is something that simply should never be done in a free country, period,” he said earlier this year.

Ross McNutt of the Ohio-based surveillance company told city officials in an August proposal that the technology allows analysts to follow potential suspects from crimes scenes, either in real-time or by reviewing footage.

“We can ‘rewind time’ and watch the crimes occur and follow the people and vehicles from the crime scene to the houses [they] come from and go to and the routes they take,” McNutt wrote in an Aug. 9 email to Sheryl Goldstein, Young’s deputy chief of staff.

The program also has been used by defense attorneys “to show innocence and to challenge police statements,” McNutt has said.

©2019 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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