As Cities Curb Surveillance, Baltimore Police Took to the Air


In August 2016, a Bloomberg report revealed a secret aerial surveillance program in Baltimore led by the town’s police division. Over eight months, planes outfitted with cameras collected over 300 hours of footage, utilized by the police to analyze alleged crimes. Hardly anybody outdoors police division management and the seller, Persistent Surveillance Systems, knew.

Baltimore’s police commissioner on the time, Kevin Davis, defended each the planes and the secrecy. The metropolis’s homicide fee was spiking, the stretched police division was responding to hundreds of calls per day, and pictures from the planes was serving to police discover suspects.

The planes had been grounded amid backlash from residents and civil liberties teams, who referred to as for the speedy suspension of this system and particulars on what knowledge the town had been amassing. Commissioner Davis was finally fired after failing to curb the town’s murder fee. His substitute, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in a tax evasion scandal. The subsequent 12 months, Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned in a separate monetary scandal.

Four years later, the planes had been again within the air, however underneath completely different circumstances. In 2019, Persistent Surveillance Systems CEO Ross McNutt pitched the town on restarting this system. By flying over a 32-square-mile portion of the town, the planes may monitor the town’s most troubled areas, the websites of 80 p.c of the town’s gun homicides. Funded solely by donors, McNutt pitched the planes as an affordable however game-changing instrument to curb the rising homicide fee.

The new program, dubbed Aerial Investigation Research (AIR), underwent public remark and located sturdy help among the many metropolis’s Black and spiritual communities. The metropolis’s Board of Estimates accredited it in April by a vote of three to 2. The planes started flying in May for a six-month pilot that led to October.

The present police commissioner, Michael Harrison, helps this system. “If it doesn’t work, you have my commitment that we will ground the planes,” Harrison stated on the April Board of Estimates assembly.

Some activists, together with the ACLU, nonetheless oppose this system. They say the transparency is immaterial because the planes are inherently invasive and unconstitutional. “The problem with what happened in 2016 wasn’t that it was done in secret, it was that it was done at all,” says David Rocah, senior workers legal professional on the ACLU Maryland.

The reemergence of Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program comes at a second of accelerating scrutiny on policing. Local governments are proscribing police know-how. City leaders in San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston accredited restrictions on police use of facial recognition as main distributors like Amazon and Microsoft positioned momentary moratoriums on gross sales of the tech to police. California has handed two privateness legal guidelines previously two years, whereas Michigan voters endorsed new guidelines round police entry to suspect knowledge.

Baltimore’s growing homicide fee, nonetheless, marks the town as an outlier. Residents have lengthy complained of a sophisticated cycle of violence within the metropolis. Robust police responses can set off violent backlashes, whereas passive approaches frustrate residents, who really feel ignored. The revolving door of police commissioners has contributed to an absence of belief in police, which frustrates authorities, who complain they’ll’t resolve crimes with out the assistance from potential witnesses. These similar witnesses really feel police are powerless to guard them from retribution. All the whereas, homicide rises.

“I understand the fears of people who live in Baltimore because I live in Baltimore,” Rocah says. But, he provides, “if that’s a sufficient justification for this, then the Fourth Amendment is completely irrelevant.”

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In April, the ACLU filed a criticism towards the BPD, arguing that the continuing, warrantless nature of this system violated Fourth Amendment protections towards unfair searches. Three occasions since then, judges have dominated towards the ACLU, and allowed this system to proceed.

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