A group is trying to get the grounded Baltimore police surveillance airplane flying again. The pitch: It can catch corrupt cops

When Archie Williams first heard the pitch about what he calls the “eye in the sky” — the privately funded surveillance plane that flew over Baltimore in 2016 collecting video for police — he leaned back in his chair defiantly with his arms crossed.

The West Baltimore man spent more than a decade in prison on drug charges and was homeless for years. He wanted nothing to do with the secretive airplane he saw as just another tool to arrest more black men like him.

But then he heard the surveillance company’s president say something that made his ears perk up: The plane’s cameras could be used to watch the police.

“The eye in the sky can be turned around,” says the 38-year-old Williams, now a community organizer with an organization called Community With Solutions. “It can be turned around on the officers.”

Police grounded the plane after its revelation to the public sparked an outcry. Now Williams is serving as a local frontman for its Ohio-based operator in a campaign to get it flying again.

Williams and Ross McNutt, founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, call the operation the “Community Support Program” and have embarked on a citywide outreach mission.

In what they say is an effort to persuade Mayor Catherine Pugh, Williams, McNutt and retired nurse Joyous Jones are visiting community associations, churches, businesses and government agencies trying to build support for what they say is a much-needed crime-fighting tool in one of America’s most violent cities.

They also brief community leaders at the company’s Baltimore office, which is on South Frederick Street, behind police headquarters.

They want Baltimore to serve as a national model for aerial surveillance. They say they’re willing to fly the plane here at cost, in the hope of showing other cities what it can offer.

“We are looking for a U.S. city to do this in a very public way,” McNutt says. “Every other city is always looking for someone else to go first.”

It makes sense, the teams says, to start in Baltimore. The city suffered more than 300 homicides in each of the last three years; last year, it saw the most killings per capita on record. The police department, meanwhile, is reeling from the federal convictions of eight members of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force.

The Justice Department found that police in Baltimore routinely violated the constitutional rights of local residents, particularly in predominantly poor, black neighborhoods; used excessive force; mistreated protesters, youths and people with mental disabilities; and dismissed sexual assault complaints improperly, among other failings. The department now labors under a court-enforced consent decree that requires reforms.

Williams says he shapes his pitch based on what the thinks his audience wants to hear. For some, he describes how the surveillance system will fight crime. For others, he emphasizes that it will reduce police corruption.

The group has received pledges of support from the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce and community leaders in East and West Baltimore.

“We have to do something,” says George Mitchell, the Park Heights community leader who heads Neighborhoods United. “The murders are doing a lot of disruption to our city, especially in the black population.

“I saw the demonstration and I’m sold on it. It’s not going to cost the city one penny. We can try this. Why not?”

Williams says an eye in the sky will make the community feel safe.

“It’s a deterrent against crime. It’s a deterrent against police misconduct as well,” Williams says. “You have grown men talking about, ‘I was afraid of the Gun Trace Task Force.’ They were out here traumatizing the community. Why not have the cameras turned around on them?”

The team launched the marketing effort six months ago after Pugh told them she would consider green-lighting the program if they could demonstrate it has community support. Pugh did not ask for funding for a surveillance plane in her first budget as mayor, but she allowed the company to make a pitch to her grassroots cabinet of neighborhood leaders at City Hall.

“If the community asks for this and the community wants this and the police department feels it’s a good tool, I’m listening,” Pugh told The Baltimore Sun. “They don’t need to convince me. When things bubble up from the community, I think you have to listen.”

McNutt says the company has collected enough private donations to keep the plane aloft for a year, and would fly it at cost — for $1.6 million a year — after that. If the program delivers the 20 to 30 percent reduction in crime he believes it will, he says, the team can pitch it to cities across the country, where they can turn a profit.

Although it’s a for-profit business, the men insist they are not motivated by money.

“Stopping people from shooting theirselves is more important to me than a dollar,” Williams says.

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, was a vocal critic of the surveillance plane. He has not been persuaded by the rebranding effort.

“This is one of the most stunningly cynical and revolting attempts to profit off misery that I have ever heard of in my entire life,” Rocah says. “How would they feel if every time they walked out of their house, there was a police officer following them everywhere they went? This permanent eye in the sky is doing exactly that.”

The program uses a bank of cameras mounted inside a small Cessna airplane flown at roughly 8,000 feet above the city to capture footage of 32 square miles at a time.

Persistent Surveillance Systems flew the plane for the police department for hundreds of hours in 2016. But the operation, funded by Houston philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, was not disclosed to the public or, initially, to elected officials, including then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

When the program’s existence was revealed, officials and others slammed the police department. Civil liberties advocates said the plane allowed the government to track residents for hours without warrants and with little oversight.

The program was grounded. Police said at the time that if they were to try to resurrect it, they would make the process public.

That was under then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis. Pugh fired Davis last month. His successor, Darryl De Sousa, is to be briefed on the program “in the coming weeks,” a spokesman said.

“I know that the company has been doing presentations with various community groups over the past year or so,” police spokesman TJ Smith said in an email. “In the past, we have talked about the benefits of the program and we will continue to consider the possibility of having this tool available in our toolbox.”

Williams and McNutt say they have answers to community questions and concerns.

They argue privacy rights aren’t violated, in part because the cameras do not record enough detail to identify individuals. From the air, McNutt says, people look like shrubs. In order to catch anyone, the plane’s footage needs to be paired with other intelligence, such as security camera footage or eyewitness accounts. The program’s best use, he says, is tracking cars coming and going to crime scenes. In a drive-by shooting, for instance, footage from the plane could be analyzed to determine where the shooter’s car came from before the event, and where it went after.

“If you’re lying by your pool in your backyard, I can’t tell you from a bush,” McNutt says. “We only follow people to and from major crime scenes. We can follow them both forward and backwards in time.”

McNutt says the cameras should be equally useful to law enforcement and to defendants.

He speaks of a defense lawyer who contacted him to help his client beat a drug-dealing charge. A police officer said the client’s home was the site of a bustling drug trafficking operation, but the plane footage showed only a couple people approaching the house over the course of a day.

The pitch has gone over well with some Baltimoreans — but not so well with others.

Nicole Hanson is director of Out for Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for ex-offenders. She left a meeting with the group with much skepticism.

“I really would like to hear more detail about how this thing will work, how it will affect the community I represent, which is the re-entry community, and how our privacy would be protected,” she said. “I fear this eye in the sky could unfairly target people. It’s just scary. I just question how the information will be stored and who will have access to this information.”

Pastor Duane Simmons has hosted listening sessions at his Simmons Memorial Baptist Church. He says community members want to know that drug importers, police and politicians will be subjected to the same scrutiny as them.

“These cameras are just not watching you,” he says. “They are watching the culprits behind the culprit. They know that fentanyl didn’t come in from out of nowhere. If I’m being watched, they're being watched, too. It watches the policemen and the politicians, too.”

Williams and Jones are circulating an open letter to Baltimore leaders to win support.

“Over the past three years, more than 1,000 people have been murdered, tens of thousands have been shot, and the situation in our city is only getting worse,” they wrote. “Rather than just complain about the problem, we propose a solution. Bring back the Community Support Program.”

During the hours the plane was flown in 2016, McNutt says, it provided “useful information” on five murders and 18 shootings.

The Washington-based Police Foundation analyzed its performance and found it supplied police with hundreds of potential leads in an array of crimes, and significantly advanced investigations of seven shootings and three homicides.

Former City Councilwoman Rochelle Rikki Spector is a supporter.

“It solves crime. It deters crime. It is paid for by a foundation. And Baltimore city residents will get these positions as analysts,” she says.

She calls the rebranding effort smart.

“When they called it death insurance nobody bought it,” she says. “When they called it life insurance, everybody bought it,” she said.

Marsha Jews, an entrepreneur who lives in East Baltimore, believes the plane should be flown over “hot spots” of the city where murders and shootings are concentrated.

“Minimally, we should test it,” she said. “People are going to be worried about privacy. People are going to be worried about Big Brother. But our crime has escalated. How can we abate the situation if we can’t determine what they’re doing and why they’re doing it? If people saw it going into the hot areas first and getting some successes, that might be a way for people to walk into the idea.”

McNutt and Williams say they’re going to keep pushing, trying to win over more community leaders in an effort to get city approval.

“It’s just a political decision away,” McNutt says. “I don’t know if that’s one more person or 100 more people. It really is based on community acceptance.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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