Baltimore City

Baltimore police commissioner grounds an outsider’s pitch to resurrect a controversial surveillance plane

Persistent Surveillance Systems' wide area camera imagery captured about 30-square miles of Baltimore at once before the program was canceled. The plane's existence had not been disclosed to most public officials.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has no interest in reviving a controversial surveillance plane program, which has been touted by proponents as a tool to combat crime, but has also elicited concerns about its privacy implications.

“The Commissioner learned a lot today about the surveillance plane program and still has no plans to bring it back,” police spokesman Matt Jablow said Monday afternoon.


Harrison met with Ross McNutt, founder of the Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, who has been advocating for the use of the surveillance plane after a pilot program was abruptly ended in 2016 after a news article first disclosed its existence.

Harrison had no interest in the program before the meeting, Jablow said, but he agreed to meet with McNutt.


"He’s just not sold on the idea. He does not think it’s good idea,” Jablow said previously.

Here’s a refresher on Baltimore’s history with the technology.

When did it first show up?

Persistent Surveillance Systems conducted 100 hours of surveillance in January and February 2016 and 200 hours of surveillance between June and August that year as part of a pilot program. The Cessna plane that could record footage of 32 square miles of the city at any given moment.

But the program had never been publicly disclosed. It did not to go before the city’s spending board because it was paid for using private donations handled by the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation.

What was the controversy?

The program was only disclosed after an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, which was given exclusive access to the company’s testing. Many were caught off guard, including then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Baltimore City Council, prosecutors and public defenders, and other elected officials.

The discovery prompted an outcry from some public officials who called for an end of the program.

Then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and other department leaders, however, said that the program was not a secret, and likened the technology to an expansion of CitiWatch cameras. The department said the surveillance plane had helped police make arrests in several non-fatal shootings.

When did it go away and why?

The department grounded the plane following its public disclosure. The department said it planned to further study the use of the plane, including its effectiveness and how the plane would affect community trust.


David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, has criticized the program and its roll out, calling it previously “mass surveillance technology.”

He has said the technology is the “virtually equivalent to attaching a GPS tracker to each and every one of us every time we walk out of our house or office building.”

Who wants to bring it back?

Since the program ended, some public officials have expressed interest in reconsidering the program, including former Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young hasn’t endorsed the plane but called for a council hearing last year for the public to get more information. City Council President Brandon Scott scheduled the hearing at Young’s request, but has also raised questions about its effectiveness.

Former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle Spector has been advocating for the plane’s return. She cited the recent attack against Sgt. Isaac Carrington as something that could’ve been aided by using the technology.

“If they had the eye in the sky, they would’ve caught those bums,” Spector said.


Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah said that while he has reservations about its implementation — especially when speaking about how obtained footage would be subject to a warrant process — he didn’t see the program as a lost cause.

“I think trying to present this as a choice between public safety and privacy is a false one,” he said.

Vignarajah said the technology could be successful with proper oversight, but that without it, it could lose a challenge in the courts.

McNutt said that after the initial run — where police launched the technology without the public’s knowledge and then withdrew from the program — his group had largely given up on Baltimore, but was drawn back by a group of community members who wanted to hear more.

“If they had just let us show what it was doing, I believe the public would’ve been very much in favor of it,” McNutt said.

He said he believes it can reduce Baltimore’s murder rate by 20 percent to 30 percent as a deterrent to crime as well as act as a level of oversight for police.


He cited an example of how the surveillance plane can detect when an officer arrives at the scene and how it can be compared to when his body camera was turned on to see if there was any discrepancy.

The group plans to partner with the University of Baltimore to study the plane’s impact on crime, he added.

As for how the use of a surveillance plane could affect the department’s and the city’s image, McNutt said he believes the neighborhoods besieged by crime would be happy to see the results.

“I believe the citizens deserve effective policing,” he said.