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Baltimore’s Controversial Surveillance Planes Await Approval

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has described the first-in-the-nation program as a potential “investigative tool” for police to use in the fight against violent crime in Baltimore. Privacy advocates aren’t convinced.

(TNS) — A controversial plan to fly three private surveillance planes over Baltimore could soon be one step closer to getting off the ground.

The city’s spending board Wednesday is expected to consider an agreement between the Baltimore Police Department and Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Ohio company behind the program.

There are only vague details included on the board’s routine agenda, including specifying that the pilot program will be funded by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold, rather than city tax dollars.

The police department declined to provide a copy of the agreement to The Baltimore Sun, pending Board of Estimates approval.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has described the first-in-the-nation program as a potential “investigative tool” for police to use in the fight against unrelenting violent crime in Baltimore.

Harrison said during a virtual community forum Monday — held on Facebook Live because the state banned mass gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic — that the planes could launch by the first week of April, with the pilot program authorized to last six months.

Harrison, who initially was skeptical of the program, has pledged to ground the planes if they don’t generate results. The department plans to partner with outside researchers to analyze data from the first few months and determine whether the surveillance planes helped police solve crimes and deter criminals.

The move has been decried by civil liberties advocates who say the surveillance planes violate residents’ rights and privacy.

There’s a complicated history: In 2016, a Bloomberg report revealed that Persistent Surveillance Systems had partnered with the police department to fly a surveillance plane over Baltimore in secret.

The ACLU of Maryland submitted a letter of protest Tuesday to request the Board of Estimates postpone its vote.

City Council President Brandon Scott, who sits on the spending board, asked for vote to be deferred, but he does not control the majority of votes. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is supportive of the pilot program. The two men are running against each other in the Democratic primary for mayor.

“An item of this significance requires a level of communication that has not been met," Scott said in a statement. "The full City Council has not yet been briefed on the MOU, and the ACLU of Maryland has filed a protest citing concerns.”

Senior ACLU attorney David Rocah wrote in his letter that there is has been “inadequate public information” about the city’s decision to move forward with the pilot program, especially while so many people are focused on a global health emergency.

“The very existence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public health crisis and disruption it has engendered, has significantly impacted the public’s ability to focus on or participate in any public discussion of this far reaching new technology,” Rocah wrote.

Harrison said during the virtual forum that no one knows how long the country will be grappling with the new coronavirus.

“We have the capacity to introduce something that could be a tool,” he said. “It would be derelict in our duties if something is available to us that we didn’t use only because we were waiting.”

Rocah also slammed the city for not publishing a copy of the agreement prior to board’s vote, keeping the public from being able to meaningfully comment on its contents.

According to the Board of Estimates agenda, the resolution on the footage is limited so that people and vehicles are shown only as dots, though their movements can be tracked from a crime scene.

“This program will be used for investigative ‘look-back’ after an incident has already occurred and can only be used after receiving a case number or incident number,” the document states. It does not allow for real-time surveillance.

The program won’t be used to gather footage from minor crimes, and is instead focused on solving murders, non-fatal shootings, armed robberies and car-jackings. Footage must be deleted after 45 days if it’s not needed for an investigation.

The agenda also states that independent researchers will be brought on to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Potential partners are Morgan State University, New York University, University of Baltimore, and the RAND Corporation, but a specific arrangement has not been finalized.

Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting will be held virtually, given that the state has restricted gatherings of more than 10 people.

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