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Police Surveillance Planes to Take Flight in Baltimore

The controversial Baltimore Police surveillance program is preparing to launch its first flight on Friday. The pilot program is funded by a privately held company with aims of reducing violent crime.

by Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun / April 30, 2020

(TNS) — After overcoming legal challenges, the controversial Baltimore Police surveillance program will launch its first flight Friday, police announced.

The “Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) Pilot Program” will fly three planes over Baltimore during the next six months to gather information they hope will help investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. Last month, the city’s spending board approved the program, which is being paid for entierly by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures.

“I remain cautiously optimistic about the potential of this program and will allow the data to show us the efficacy of this technology as a potential tool for the Department in solving and reducing violent crime,” Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in a statement Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has lobbied against the program after an earlier launch 2016 was made public. That program, which wasn’t shared with the city’s political leaders or the public, was later suspended.

The ACLU sued the police department over the program, and filed an emergency injunction to keep the program grounded, but a federal judge ruled last week that the program does no violate privacy rights of city residents and allowed a trial run of the flights to proceed.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett cited Baltimore’s continued high homicide rate.

“In a City plagued with violent crime and clamoring for police protections, this Court is loathe to take the ‘extraordinary’ step of stopping the AIR program before it even begins,” he wrote.

The ACLU has said it will appeal the decision.

“If allowed to stand, this ruling is a decision that the city, and the country, will come to regret,” ACLU staff attorney David Rocah said in a statement. "Baltimore is a city with a terrible history of racism and lack of accountability for abuses by police, which only further compounds our concerns about this program’s potential for misuse. We are hopeful that the courts will eventually recognize the serious constitutional issues here and stop the persistent aerial surveillance program.”

To guard against any potential misuse, and to build public trust for the program, the department has said it will rely on civilian auditors to make sure the planes and data are being used for the intended purposes. All data that isn’t analyzed or used as part of active investigations will be stored for 45 days and then destroyed.

©2020 The Baltimore Sun, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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