Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced Friday his department will begin a trial program to use surveillance planes to assist investigations into the wave of homicides and other violent crimes that have afflicted the city for the last four years.
Harrison said the surveillance planes, operated by third-party company Persistent Surveillance Systems, will assist police investigations into murders, robberies and shootings beginning in May on a trial basis for between 120 and 180 days.
A similar plane surveillance program, used secretly by the Baltimore Police Department in 2016, was halted amid criticisms from the public and the ACLU, which called it a “privacy nightmare.”
Harrison said Friday he still doesn’t believe that surveillance planes will significantly reduce murder rates in Baltimore but added that the department doesn’t know for certain and could use this pilot period to check the results.
“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” Harrison said.
The announcement drew strong criticism from public defenders and civil liberty groups, but it was firmly endorsed by a major regional business and civic organization.
The pilot program is estimated to cost between $2 million and $3 million, according to Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems. The funding is being provided by philanthropists John and Laura Arnold, who live in Houston, Texas. The couple had paid for the previous surveillance plane program, McNutt said.
McNutt added this is the first U.S. city to use this as a crime reduction tactic in a public partnership, adding that there were “probably a dozen” previous cities that had used surveillance planes but didn’t disclose it publicly, along with many international locations including Mexico.
Harrison said police officers will not have direct access to the plane footage, but instead can request an “evidence package” from the private company of past incidents. Harrison added that the footage will not be live-streamed, and that after evaluating the program, it could be expanded to investigate other cases such as rape.
A Baltimore Police representative confirmed that three planes would be used simultaneously to film 90% of Baltimore during daytime hours. The plane cameras are designed to track individuals’ location, reducing each person down to the size of a pixel so analysts can track where suspects go or what vehicles they enter.
Before the program goes into effect, Harrison said, there will be public meetings so officials can answer questions and address public concerns about the surveillance planes. After the trial period ends, the department will assess its effectiveness and decide whether to continue or end the program, he said.
Jeffrey Gilleran, chief attorney for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, decried Harrison’s plan, and said the office is “deeply troubled … that an untested and omnipresent surveillance technology will be deployed without any indication it will actually address the city’s real concerns about violent crime.”
“The commissioner, in league with an out-of-town private company, seeks to make the citizens of Baltimore guinea pigs by this powerful spying technology in the hands of a department that has yet to show that it can be trusted,” Gilleran said. “This type of unfettered and pervasive spying technology is exactly what despotic regimes across the globe employ to surveil their most vulnerable citizens.”
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he “fully supports” Harrison and the trial program as a way to explore options to reduce crime.
“The process the commissioner has outlined is transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions,” Young said in a statement.
The proposal was strongly endorsed by Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee.
“The Greater Baltimore Committee has expressed its support for aerial surveillance as a new investigative tool to address the unacceptable crime rate in the city,” Fry said in a statement, noting that the program “is limited in scope and time to determine whether the technology is effective and if a longer term commitment is worthwhile.”
The ACLU of Maryland said it still strongly opposes the pilot program, citing concerns that tracking the location of individuals without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
“Like most police technologies, this one will have the greatest impacts in Black and Brown neighborhoods, because it relies for its effectiveness on the network of ground-based cameras, which are concentrated in those communities,” the ACLU and the Coalition for Justice, Safety & Jobs said in a statement.
McNutt, who noted he’s personally driven to reduce the high murder rates in Baltimore, said he firmly believes that the program can reduce crime in the city, and serve primarily as a way to deter criminals from going out to
“What I’d like is for kids to feel comfortable sitting on their stoop or relaxing in the park on a Friday afternoon without worrying about getting shot,” McNutt said. “We’re excited for the opportunity to help the people of Baltimore to demonstrate the impact our system has, in a public and open and transparent way.”
McNutt emphasized that he believes “two-thirds” of the effects of the program is to deter future crimes from happening, rather than to solve previous crimes. McNutt said the goal would be to have a quick turn-around from a 911 call coming in to detectives using street camera footage before they turn to his company to check the footage.
He added that while the current plan is to only operate planes during the day, there could be discussions of implementing infrared technology to the planes later on to conduct nighttime tracking.
McNutt said that Baltimore-based analysts would only be allowed to look at footage from the reported location of each crime. The plan would also be to train between 20 and 30 Baltimore-area analysts to review the footage, McNutt said.