Persistent problems with Persistent Surveillance

Did the person who wrote the executive summary of a report on BPD aerial surveillance actually read the report

The executive summary of the Police Foundation's report on the collaboration between the Baltimore Police Department and an Ohio company that flew hundreds of hours of reconnaissance flights over the city, recording everything that went on in 32-square-mile grids at one-second intervals during an eight-month period last year, calls the pilot effort promising and dismisses concerns about the secrecy with which it was carried out as overblown. We wonder whether the person who wrote the executive summary actually read the report because it leads to precisely the opposite conclusion.

The fact is that the police department did not disclose the existence of the creepily named Persistent Surveillance program to the public, to the state's attorney, to the City Council or even the mayor until long after it had been in operation. The department's excuse for this, credulously parroted by the Police Foundation, is that police brass saw it as nothing more than an extension of the CitiWatch program of fixed cameras that are mounted on poles throughout the city and/or the aerial surveillance provided by police helicopters. "It is more than likely that the BPD's perceived lack of candor was simply the result of bureaucratic misunderstanding relative to the clarity of the connection to the CitiWatch program."

Any "misunderstanding" about the connection between Persistent Surveillance and CitiWatch is probably because the "connection" is tenuous at best. As the Police Foundation report notes, CitiWatch, which has been in operation since 2005, "has been widely publicized." The move in 2014 to ask owners of private security cameras to volunteer for inclusion in a database of surveillance systems was also well publicized. According to the Police Foundation report, Persistent Surveillance company officials (who have been shopping around for test markets for their products but have been blown back by public opposition elsewhere) and city police agreed that the existing policy for CitiWatch cameras would be sufficient to cover the airborne monitoring. But that policy specifically governs "fixed position cameras strategically placed in locations throughout Baltimore City." A bank of cameras mounted in a Cessna is not the same thing.

Moreover, Policy 1014 describes as the "reviewing entity" for the CitiWatch footage "CCTV personnel at the district, CitiWatch, Watch Center and/or the Homeland Security division" — in other words, police department employees. That gets to one of the most important differences between Persistent Surveillance and the city's previous monitoring efforts. The system the city tested in 2016 relied on Persistent Surveillance personnel to fly the plane, operate the cameras and monitor the video feeds. Company employees sat in the police department's Watch Center and monitored the computer aided dispatch system to find incidents Persistent Surveillance might help with. The privacy policy governing the program came from the company, not the police department, and Persistent Surveillance is the one retaining the data and safeguarding its security.

Outsourcing police activity to a private, for-profit company is distinctly different from CitiWatch. It opens Baltimore's law enforcement activity to an entity with its own motives, as documented in the Police Foundation report. It notes that the company took it upon itself to find out whether its systems could determine who had been at fault in traffic accidents. Was this because it fit within the stated mission of the pilot program to reduce violent crime, or was it because the company was considering marketing that data to insurance companies?

The report concludes that police department officials were "courageous" in their willingness to try a new strategy, despite potential political risks, at a time when violent crime is spiking. But that's only true if it works, and there is good reason to question whether Persistent Surveillance is solving the problems Baltimore police have in reducing violent crime or whether it might make them worse.

The technology, as described in the report, is limited. An individual shows up as nothing more than a dot on the screen, and even something as large as a car can't be identified for make or model, much less license plate number. What the images can do is allow police to trace the paths taken by individuals as they leave the scene of a crime. They can then cross-reference that information with the much clearer images provided by CitiWatch cameras, if the potential suspects or witnesses happen to be near them. The report says the data "advanced" seven shooting and three homicide investigations, and it quotes a homicide investigator as saying it was a major time-saver.

But Baltimore police should ask themselves, is their major obstacle in solving violent crime cases that they cannot find potential witnesses or that they can't convince them to talk or testify in court? Historically, it has been the latter, because of mistrust of police, fear of retaliation by criminals, or both. In that context, launching a program capable of tracking the movements of anyone in the city at any time without telling anyone about it didn't help. Even if a program like this could be helpful to police, could be launched with public input and guidance, and could incorporate appropriate oversight, the department has now poisoned the well. At a time when the biggest challenge facing the department is rebuilding trust with the community, launching a program like this in the way it did wasn't "courageous." It was foolish.

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