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Bring aerial surveillance back to Baltimore

It’s official, the FBI determined Baltimore to be the deadliest city in America for 2017. With 56 murders per 100,000 people (342 total on the year) Baltimore topped those familiar cities whose higher rates once gave us comfort: Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago. We were always bad, but No. 1? That was supposed to be Camden.

Mayor Catherine Pugh will no doubt respond to Baltimore’s latest honorific by pointing to a declining crime for 2018. Others will tout a few small changes to policy or maybe stress the need to fully implement the consent decree. And many will condemn the mayor and demand a return to the failed policies of the past. We seem to be left with no good choice: Embrace either reforms that (while worthwhile for other reasons) don’t seem to be curtailing crime or broken-windows policing with disastrous social consequences.

Yet there is another option, a way to both effectively combat crime and respect the civil rights of our citizens: Bring back the Baltimore Community Support Program — the police surveillance plane. Last week, the Baltimore City Council agreed to hold a hearing on the proposal, expected this month.

Just for the record, the first attempt to launch this program was done in a supremely problematic way. The BPD didn’t tell residents about the plane or attempt to build any kind of community support for it. Launched the January after Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, the discovery of a secret police surveillance plane was rightly viewed as emblematic of everything wrong with Baltimore policing.

Yet the results from even this limited pilot study cannot be ignored. During just 210 hours of flight time, in clear skies and during the day, the police surveillance plane provided briefings on five homicides, 15 shootings, one rape, three stabbings, two assaults, three car jackings, three burglaries and 16 hit-and-runs. And since the plane was part of a pilot program provided by the nonprofit Police Foundation, the city paid nothing for it.

The police plane is a remarkably simple idea, and not even particularly high tech. A bank of cameras attached to a small Cessna captured and saved images of wide areas of the city. These images aren’t the crystal-clear satellite pictures from “Mission Impossible;” a single person only shows up as a couple of pixels. But the wide view gives the police the ability to go back and track those pixels from, say, a shooting in an alley in Penn North to a security camera at the Metro. Those pixels become a suspect.

The ACLU has warned that this kind of constant surveillance represents the first step to a “1984” style police state. I disagree. The program, as it currently stands, takes very-low resolution pictures of mostly public areas, during the day. Google Maps street view is more invasive, and those images are released publicly. Further, no court has ever found use of surveillance in public spaces to violate the Fourth Amendment. Images of Clifton Park or someone’s front lawn, during the day, should meet that requirement.

So how does a program that elicited fears of Big Brother respect civil rights? Simple, it provides the public with a reviewable, clear record of who, what and where. That information wouldn’t just be used against potential criminals, it could show that a suspect wasn’t at the crime scene or that the cops acted corruptly. It’s good to keep in mind the status quo here: Our current system relies on a widely distrusted police force to accurately report crime. Yet study after study has shown that police cameras build trust; surveillance should be seen as an alternative to heavy-handed tactics, not an addition.

A police surveillance plane isn’t a panacea. We need criminal justice reforms, we need to complete the consent decree and most importantly we need to bring investment to Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. But none of those noble goals conflict with bringing the police plane back online.We can utilize aerial surveillance in Baltimore in a way that respects the rights of Baltimore residents. We could enact safeguards against abuse and make footage fully available to the Baltimore Police Oversight Panel. We should, at the very least, study the issue with another pilot program and see if we can make it work. It would be downright negligent for the deadliest city in America to permanently abandon a crime-fighting tool when it shows so much promise.

Ted Walsh is a Research Associate at the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise at the UMD School of Public Policy. His email is tedwalsh7@gmail.com.

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