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Police union officials were unaware of surveillance program, but support testing technology

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore police union, left, and Robert Cherry, the union’s immediate past president, were among local leaders who were never told of a program in which a private company has conducted hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance in recent months for the Baltimore Police Department.
Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore police union, left, and Robert Cherry, the union’s immediate past president, were among local leaders who were never told of a program in which a private company has conducted hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance in recent months for the Baltimore Police Department.(Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Top officials in Baltimore's local police union were among the majority of residents and local leaders who were never told of a program in which a private company has conducted hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance in recent months for the Baltimore Police Department.

"Nobody's discussed it with me as far as the department or even elected officials," Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said this week. "I didn't know about it."

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Ryan said the union has not taken an official position on the program, but he personally is not opposed to testing the technology to see if it helps officers fight crime.

"Why shouldn't we utilize whatever tools are at our disposal?" Ryan said.

Sgt. Robert Cherry, the union's immediate past president, said he also supports testing the technology — if it is done in an open way.

Cherry said he would have loved to have such technology when he worked as a homicide detective in the past, and believes the surveillance program is "a good thing" and an "effective tool."

Still, there is a social contract between citizens and their government, Cherry said, and "we expect some sort of response to what they're doing with our money."

"I know that in this case it's privately funded money, but it's still being used by an agency that's paid for by the public," he said. "As long as it's used in a proper way that doesn't violate civil rights and it leads to a safer and stronger community and the community is aware of what's happening, I think it's worth testing, it's worth looking at."

The program was funded by private donors, and operated by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, a private company. It has sent a Cessna airplane capable of recording 32 square miles of the city at a time into the skies above Baltimore for about 300 hours since January.

Among those who were unaware of the program until last week were Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, and the members of the City Council.

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The footage has been used to solve crimes but also caused concern among civil liberties advocates, who say it has been used without warrants or disclosure. The state Office of the Public Defender has called for the program to be immediately suspended, saying its defense attorneys were inapproprioately kept in the dark about its existence.

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