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Editorial Advisory Board: Baltimore’s spy planes aren’t effective

The aerial surveillance aircraft – the spy planes flying over Baltimore — were recently back in the news. Late in October, the Baltimore Police Department announced that the spy plane operations would end on the last day of that month. The BPD said in a statement that it would work with the vendor, independent evaluators and other interested parties to provide an analysis of whether the spy planes were effective.

However, Mayor-elect Brandon Scott is on record as opposed to the spy planes taking flight again. This board recommends that the spy planes stay grounded.

A bit of background first. In August of 2016, a story in Bloomberg Businessweek exposed the fact that a company — Persistent Surveillance Systems — had been flying a Cessna 207 aircraft, equipped with state-of-the-art cameras connected to a high-tech imaging system, over the Baltimore metro area since January of 2016 and taking real-time images of whatever was going on at ground level.

Over the course of the next several months, the local and national media – and websites galore — covered the story.

A year prior to that, in 2015, PSS and BPD began talking. Boosted by a private contribution of $120,000 from Texas billionaire John Arnold, sent through the Baltimore Community Foundation, the aerial surveillance aircraft was soon flying over Baltimore. For at least seven hours a day, flying at 8,500 feet, and canvassing an area of 30 square miles.

However, BPD didn’t inform the community that it was being aerial surveilled and even the mayor wasn’t initially informed. But all that changed by August of 2016, when the news media got wind of it. After that, the spy plane was grounded, temporarily.

Nevertheless, PSS and BPD were still talking. By February 2020 another agreement was reached. Thus, in April, the Baltimore City Board of Estimates voted (3-2) to sign an agreement with PSS to launch a six-month pilot project allowing BPD to use photos captured by the planes for investigations of homicides, shootings, armed robberies and carjackings.

The cost of the half-year program was $3.7 million — above the originally proposed $2.2 million — and was funded by Arnold. Among the opposing votes was then City Council president and now mayor-elect Scott.

Consequently, the planes started flying again in May, covering 30 square miles of the city every time. The company started collecting the images and sending the police department briefings with the images for any ongoing investigations.

The BPD had previously stressed that the planes would not be used for real-time surveillance but rather investigations of crimes that have already happened. (But that statement is in dispute, according to the lawsuit filed in April by Maryland ACLU). Any data not used for evidence packages would be destroyed after 45 days under the agreement.

What we now know

In September 2020, the BPD released its “midterm report” about the spy plane program and its effectiveness. The planes only flew during daylight hours.

From May to August, there were 981 total crimes in Baltimore City — homicide (121), shootings (224), armed robberies (494), and carjackings (142). Of those, in daylight hours there were 215 incidents. And from that figure, “incidents that occurred during flight hours and in flight coverage” were 117.

According to the RAND Corporation report, from the program’s launch on May 1 to Aug. 20,  the Aerial Investigation Research supplied evidentiary support that contributed to 17% of criminal cases that have closed with an arrest. But that figure compares to 14% of similar incidents that did not have AIR support being closed comparatively. The difference between those two figures is about the margin of error, statistically.

Although the BPD considers these statistics are not enough to conclusively declare the aerial surveillance program a success or failure, this board disagrees. The 3% difference is not sufficient to keep the spy planes aloft. And the spy planes had received at least 63 complaints, of those 43 noise complaints and 17 “programmatic concerns.” With the complaints and concerns, it is just not worth the trouble.

Additionally, the Maryland ACLU had filed a lawsuit in April, in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the spy plane program and its effect on Baltimore city residents — Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department. The ACLU sought a preliminary injunction against the program, which the District Court denied. That order was appealed to the 4th Circuit, and on November 5, the 4th Circuit affirmed — with a vigorous dissent by Chief Judge Roger Gregory. This board, as well, has been divided on the constitutionality of that program — but that may be irrelevant now.

The board agrees with Scott — the spy planes should be permanently grounded. Perhaps the more urgent takeaway from the spy plane report is that in four months, this year alone, there were 121 homicides and 494 armed robberies. Those are the most compelling statistics — which no spy plane program could decisively address.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.