Baltimore police will use a private company's aerial surveillance technology to watch over the city during upcoming events for the Maryland Fleet Week and Air Show and the Baltimore Running Festival, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Friday.
Fleet Week, during which sailors will pour into the city and more than a dozen U.S. and Canadian ships will be docked in the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Locust Point, runs for a full week starting Monday. The running festival, which includes the Baltimore Marathon, is next Saturday.
Davis said the department's use of the surveillance, conducted from a small Cessna airplane flying thousands of feet above the city, is a matter of homeland security, though the city had received "no specific threat information" as of Friday.
"Recent events in Nice, France, Boston, New York City and New Jersey illustrate again that there are people who want to harm Americans," Davis said, mentioning locations that have experienced public attacks. "We have spoken more about this aerial camera technology assisting us in local cases of violent crime, but it is also an opportunity to have more of an impact from a homeland security perspective."
Davis said Baltimore is "a gateway between Washington D.C. and New York City," cities that he said "represent two targets for those who want to harm Americans."
"Those same people will not hesitate to travel through Baltimore and attempt to harm Baltimoreans," he said.
The police department partnered with a private company, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, to conduct more than 300 hours of aerial surveillance from the company's plane between January and July. The program was not disclosed to the public, elected officials, prosecutors or public defenders.
Some officials slammed the department for its lack of transparency while suggesting the surveillance was a useful tool in the city's crime fight. Others joined civil liberties advocates in calling for the program to be immediately suspended pending more public discussion of its merits.
The surveillance technology is capable of recording about 32 square miles of the city at a time. Analysts employed by Persistent Surveillance, which owns the footage, can go back and review footage related to incidents under investigation, and track individuals and motorists to and from locations within the camera's wide lens.
Civil liberties advocates have raised privacy concerns. Police say the technology provides critical intelligence — which Davis said he wants for the upcoming events.
"The criminal elements, whether foreign or local, are using very sophisticated methods to harm us," he said. "We have an obligation to use equally sophisticated methods to prevent them from doing so."
Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Andre Watson said his agency had received a request from police to support public safety efforts during the events, as well.
"We will allocate personnel resources and equipment in furtherance of those efforts," he said.