BALTIMORE — The city of Baltimore will be monitored by surveillance airplanes for up to six months next year under a pilot program announced Friday that is aimed at helping law enforcement investigate violent crime and that will effectively restart a tactic secretively used three years ago.
The flights, which civil liberties groups oppose, will start in May and gather footage during the hours when the city experiences high rates of crime. The announcement marks a reversal for Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who previously expressed skepticism over the use of the planes and described the idea as an “untested” crime-fighting strategy.
“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” Harrison said at a news conference. He said he believes they could prove to be “yet another tool” to fight the violence plaguing the city.
The three planes will fly simultaneously, covering about 90 percent of the city, said Baltimore police spokesman Matt Jablow. The resolution of the footage won’t be sharp enough for officers to identify faces, but should help them track movement and action.
The testing will align with the city’s historically most violent months and will be focused on homicides, shootings and robberies, including carjackings. Harrison said police will not have access to live feeds, and instead, officers will receive “evidence packages” of specific crimes that have already being reported.
Footage from the pilot program will not be use in cases of police misconduct.
Baltimore is experiencing one of its most violent years on record, with more than 330 homicides so far. That’s up from 309 total in 2018. The city has also seen more than 1,310 armed and unarmed commercial robberies and carjackings. It wrapped up last year with 1,361 of those cases.
Harrison acknowledged the controversial history of the planes and promised a series of yet-to-be-scheduled public meetings to inform the community “on how the program will and will not be used going forward.”
In 2016, under a different police commissioner, the department hoped to quietly gather crime scene information using the aerial surveillance tactic. Top city officials were unaware that Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems was trying out its technology over Baltimore until Bloomberg Businessweek revealed it.
Over months, the company captured roughly 300 hours of images. Analysts then zoomed in on crime scenes, moving backward and forward in time among the images to sees suspects arriving and getting away. The footage was captured using a bank of cameras mounted inside a small Cessna airplane flown at roughly 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) above the city.
Ross McNutt, president and owner of the company as listed on its website, told The Associated Press the technology provided through the Community Support Program — “helps solve otherwise unsolvable crimes,” particularly homicides. He said it has a well-developed privacy program with external oversight.
“During the short test in 2016, in the equivalent of two weeks of flying, we watched five murders and 18 shootings and provided that information to investigators. We look forward to supporting the people of Baltimore in their efforts to reduce major crime and we look forward to doing so in a very open and transparent way” that protects people’s rights, McNutt said by phone.
City Solicitor Andre Davis on Friday said Baltimore’s law department is “entirely comfortable” with the planned test, whose cost Harrison said will be covered by philanthropic funds, not tax dollars. He said he has been in contact with the foundation of Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold, who funded the 2016 tryout through a donation to the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit civic organization.
John Arnold, the founder and co-chair of Arnold Ventures, said in a statement that the philanthropy supports the city of Baltimore as “it confronts its public safety crisis and pursues innovative strategies to ensure the well-being of its citizens.”
“By funding a limited-duration pilot and a fully independent evaluation, we hope to learn whether this technology can be a useful part of Baltimore’s crime reduction strategy,” the statement added.
Harrison said Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young, who is hoping to convince voters to chose him from a growing field of mayor candidates, did not pressure him into agreeing to test the technology. But his decision instantaneously drew condemnation from within and outside city hall.
“When you don’t have a (crime-fighting) plan, you reach for boxing rings. You hope for cold weather. You say you’ll put a surveillance plane up in the sky that does not work,” City Council President Brandon Scott, who wants to unseat Young, said in a statement. “We need solutions that work, and Commissioner Harrison has told the City Council multiple times this year, as recently as October, that there is no evidence the surveillance plane is an effective crime-fighting tool.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Coalition for Justice, Safety and Jobs in a joint statement said Harrison’s decision to reverse course is a “fateful step” that will affect the privacy rights of people of color in Baltimore. The organizations added that a decision that carries long-term impacts should be made by an elected body, not by the police commissioner.
“The surveillance plane means putting every resident of Baltimore under permanent surveillance, creating a video record of everywhere that everyone goes every time they walk outside,” they said. “If the police did that in real life, in person on our streets, we would never accept it.”