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Controversial Baltimore police surveillance planes will take flight next week, police say, following judge’s ruling

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held community forums last month to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane that will soar over the city and, supporters say, help catch criminals. Now a federal judge is being asked to halt the program as being an intrusion on privacy rights.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held community forums last month to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane that will soar over the city and, supporters say, help catch criminals. Now a federal judge is being asked to halt the program as being an intrusion on privacy rights. (McKenna Oxenden)

Surveillance planes will return to the skies over Baltimore next week, the police department says, after a federal judge rejected Friday an attempt to halt the controversial program.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett ruled that the camera-equipped airplanes do not violate privacy rights of city residents. He allowed a trial run of the flights to proceed.

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“Images produced by the AIR pilot program will only depict individuals as minuscule dots moving about a city landscape,” the judge wrote. “The movement of these dots cannot be tracked without significant labor. Gaps in the imagery data foreclose the tracking of a single person over the course of several days. This limited form of aerial surveillance does not constitute a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment, nor does it burden First Amendment speech activities.”

Baltimore activists sued the police department and asked Bennett to ground the planes until their lawsuit is resolved. The nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union had petitioned him for an emergency injunction, saying the planes amounted to the “most wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an American city.”

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Friday afternoon, ACLU attorneys said they will appeal.

“This technology could become a chilling and all-seeing part of daily life all over the country,” ACLU attorney Ashley Gorski said. “It presents a society-changing threat to everyone’s rights to privacy and free association. We believe a program like this should never get off the ground."

With Bennett’s ruling, however, Baltimore Police plan to launch the first flights next week, a department spokeswoman said.

Commissioner Michael Harrison said Friday he was pleased by the ruling and committed to conducting the surveillance in a way that protects personal privacy and the collected images.

“I take very seriously the utilization of every legal and moral tool to address the unacceptable levels of violence that often besieges our most marginalized communities,” he said in a statement from the department. "The program will be submitted to great scrutiny during this pilot phase and I will continue to be cautiously optimistic about the potential. Ultimately, the data will show us the efficacy of this technology as a potential tool for the Department in solving and reducing violent crime.”

Earlier this month, the city’s spending board voted 3-2 to approve a six-month trial run for three surveillance planes. The program is paid for by wealthy Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures. These planes can capture 90% of the city, and are permitted to fly at least 40 hours a week.

The planes have been the subject of intense controversy after it was discovered that in 2016 the police department had been testing out the surveillance plane with flights over the city — unbeknownst to many city officials and without public notice.

Criticism erupted over the secrecy and the project was shelved. Harrison, who was sworn in nearly three years later, said he was initially skeptical of the program, but became persuaded that it could prove a valuable crime fighting tool with the right safeguards. He has supported a test run for six months to determine whether the planes help catch criminals.

Harrison says photos from the planes will be stored for 45 days, unless needed for an investigation. The planes can’t be used for real-time surveillance, only to look back, and no one will be arrested based solely on the images.

The activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle sued the department along with Erricka Bridgeford, founder of the Baltimore ceasefire movement, and Kevin James, a community organizer and hip-hop artist. The ACLU took on their case.

“This kind of technology should not be in the hands of any police department, especially one with a history of pervasive corruption. This technology will compound the harms inflicted on residents who have been impacted by well-documented police abuses in Baltimore,” said Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

Attorneys for the police department note the rare opportunity the city finds itself in with donors willing to pay more than $3.6 million to fund an experimental, new crime fighting strategy. Baltimore continues to be gripped by street violence, and the city suffered more than 300 homicides a year in each of the last five years.

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“There is no violation of constitutional rights in taking low-resolution aerial photography for short time windows and using that data to develop leads in the investigation of violent crimes,” wrote Dana Moore, the acting city solicitor. “At bottom, this lawsuit is driven by Plaintiffs’ different — in their view, better — ideas of how BPD should respond to the epidemic of violent crime in Baltimore.”

In his order Friday, Bennett noted Baltimore’s homicide rate through April 8 outpaced last year by four killings.

“In a City plagued with violent crime and clamoring for police protections, this Court is loathe to take the ‘extraordinary’ step of stopping the AIR program before it even begins,” he wrote.

Reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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