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Board of Estimates approves ‘spy plane’ program despite protests

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Baltimore’s Board of Estimates narrowly approved a controversial surveillance plane program Wednesday despite complaints from the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP that it is unconstitutional.

Before the 3-2 vote, ACLU attorney David Rocah said it was “absurd” to consider launching the program when Baltimore and the rest of the country are struggling with the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It is the technological equivalent of having a police officer follow every man, woman and child in Baltimore every time they walk out of their house, at least during daylight,” Rocah said at the Board of Estimates meeting, which took place via videoconferencing due to the virus outbreak.  

Under the agreement with the Ohio company that operates the planes, the Baltimore Police Department will start the pilot program in early April. Three planes will fly over the city during daylight hours to record footage of activity citywide.

According to the agreement, the trial program — which will run for up to 180 days — will focus on compiling data and assisting investigations into murders, shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. 

Rocah objected that the program lacked approval from the City Council and that the Board of Estimates has two members who aren’t elected by the public, Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore and Department of Public Works Acting Director Matthew Garbark. Moore and Garbark voted in favor of the aerial surveillance program, as did Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

City Council President Brandon Scott and Comptroller Joan Pratt voted against the program.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said that while he has no expectation the program will be successful, he is open to trying it to see if it reduces the incidence of violent crime. 

“We’re not doing this with any expectation it will work,” Harrison said during the meeting. “I remain skeptical, but I’m open to a pilot program.”

Asked why the police department decided to move the program’s start date from May to April despite the coronavirus outbreak, Harrison said the virus doesn’t preclude police from undertaking initiatives to reduce crime. 

“This could be used as an investigative tool while we’re practicing social distancing, since detectives are not close to one another,” Harrison said. “It could help us track where violent offenders and suspected perpetrators go after a crime.” 

The planes are operated by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, which conducted aerial surveillance over Baltimore in 2016 in partnership with the police department. The project is funded by Texas philanthropists John and Laura Arnold.

Rocah said the program violates the Fourth Amendment, as the plane footage gives police movement-tracking data for individuals, which he said constitutes a search that requires a warrant. 

In an interview, Moore disagreed, saying that cameras are “everywhere” and that “the expectation of privacy we used to enjoy in small and large ways has diminished.”

Moore said that while she isn’t sure the program will reduce violent crime, “my thought is we have to do something different.” 

Rocah and Monique Dixon, director of state advocacy for the NAACP, also raised concerns that the program would violate civil rights laws and disproportionately affect people of color, since the street cameras used to identify people in conjunction with the plane footage are located only in certain neighborhoods.

It’s important to recognize that those cameras are not distributed in a racially neutral way,” Rocah said. “They’re overwhelmingly located in Baltimore’s black and brown neighborhoods. The racial impact is significant.”

Harrison said cameras are placed where crimes are most common. 

Following the vote, Scott denounced the decision to start the program amid the virus pandemic. 

“This plane — especially right now in the midst of a global public health emergency, without true public input and dialogue — is not a smart move for our city,” Scott said.

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