Aerial surveillance by Baltimore police has promise, should be studied more, report concludes

The Washington-based Police Foundation recommended the city conduct "a rigorous evaluation" next to determine whether the program could be adopted in a cost-efficient, effective and transparent way. (Baltimore Sun video)

Footage collected as part of a secret aerial surveillance program in Baltimore last year supplied police with hundreds of potential leads in an array of crimes and significantly advanced investigations of seven shootings and three homicides, according to a new analysis of the program.

In one unidentified homicide case, the footage shot from a high-flying plane helped police identify four "primary people or vehicles" at the scene, pointing investigators to nearby ground-level cameras that provided additional suspects and witnesses, the report found.


Partly because of those successes, such surveillance "has the potential for increasing the clearance of crimes and reducing the cost of criminal investigations," the police research organization that produced the report concluded. The Washington-based Police Foundation recommended that the city conduct "a rigorous evaluation" next to determine whether the program could be adopted in a cost-efficient, effective and transparent way.

"Baltimore's leadership must decide if the technology employed by the [the surveillance program] is worth the inherent challenges in using it," the foundation concluded in the report. "They must determine — ideally with the assistance of a rigorous scientific evaluation — if they can effectively control crime with this program in a way that also increases community trust and confidence in the police."


The report, the first formal review of the surveillance program, comes as the Baltimore Police Department is considering whether to move forward with aerial surveillance after its pilot program last year, conducted in partnership with the Ohio-based private contractor Persistent Surveillance Systems, created a storm of criticism.

The Police Department has not yet made a decision on "the future use" of aerial surveillance, said T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, and will "comb through this report" before it does.

"From the onset of this, our goal was to experiment with a potential crime-fighting and crime-solving tool. The report reflected that," he said. "We used the technology on a diverse array of crimes to understand its value to the entire city of Baltimore."

Police officials have said they would also seek broad public input before beginning a permanent program.

The program used a bank of cameras mounted inside a small Cessna airplane flown at roughly 8,000 feet above the city to capture footage of 32 square miles at a time over the course of hundreds of hours last year.

The program was not disclosed initially to the public, then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the City Council, local and state elected officials, prosecutors or public defenders — many of whom slammed the Police Department for its lack of transparency. Civil liberties advocates said the program invaded individuals' privacy, making it possible for police to track residents in the city for hours on end without warrants and with little to no oversight.

Police officials, including Commissioner Kevin Davis, have said the program was not a secret, but merely an expansion of the CitiWatch system of cameras mounted on light poles and buildings. Still, they acknowledged, the department could have done a better job of informing key stakeholders.

They and Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance, have said that individuals cannot be identified through the low-resolution footage collected and that privacy policies prevent abuse.

David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said Friday that those claims don't hold up under scrutiny, and neither does the Police Foundation report.

"What's glaringly omitted is any recognition about the privacy impact and societal impact of giving the government the power of knowing where everyone goes every time they leave their house, because that's what this means," he said of the surveillance program.

"If the only lens you look at is, 'Can this be useful?' then I think you are entirely missing the point," Rocah said.

Warrantless searches and wiretaps would be "useful in crime solving" as well, he said, "but in a constitutional democracy we don't let the police do them because the societal costs are too high."


The Police Foundation helped administer a $360,000 donation by Houston-based philanthropists Laura and John Arnold to help fund the pilot program. The foundation was not paid as part of that arrangement, but was granted the right to conduct its review. It said the work was in line with its mission "to advance policing through innovation and science."

Its report found that, between June and August, the program produced investigative files in a total of five homicides, 15 shootings, three stabbings and a rape, as well as dozens of other incidents — from dirt bike complaints to illegal dumping. Analysts were able to determine which driver was at fault in 35 traffic accidents, including identifying suspects in 10 hit-and-run incidents.

Asked about those cases, Smith said police "look forward to continuing to work through the judicial process with successful prosecutions."

In some instances, police investigators hesitated to use information gleaned from the surveillance program for "fear that, until cleared by the state's attorney's office, use of persistent surveillance data could compromise their investigations," the report found.

Prosecutors were briefed on the program in August. Public defenders, when they learned of it, challenged the department on its lack of transparency and raised questions about their own access to the footage, which they argued could contain information to help clear their clients.

Other police investigators who used the technology "expressed support and interest" in it, the report found. One homicide investigator, for example, found the technology to be a "significant timesaver," quickly pointing him to relevant CitiWatch footage that otherwise would have taken several weeks to find, the report found.

"Use of the data enabled him to view the routes of vehicles and people in the area and efficiently determine which cameras to review for key footage," the report found.

In addition, the surveillance data helped investigators "verify witness accounts, therefore saving time otherwise spent chasing down bad leads."

Such efficiencies could help the department, which plans to conduct a broad staffing analysis as part of reforms outlined in a proposed consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The department recently reassigned 100 officers to patrol because of staffing shortages there, and detectives are swamped with cases as violence in the city continues at a fever pitch. There has been more than a killing per day so far in 2017, after record homicide levels the past two years.

The Police Foundation found "no evidence to contradict" the Police Department's position that the surveillance program was "never intended to be secretive," and determined that "it is more likely that the BPD's perceived lack of candor was simply the result of bureaucratic misunderstanding."

While "civic leaders should always be attentive to the potential, unintentional harm to individuals, communities or the public's sense of confidence and trust in the police that well-meaning crime control strategies can produce," police "do not always have the luxury of waiting until research yields scientific evidence about the efficacy of a particular approach," the report said. "When people are dying the police must act to stop the violence — even when doing so carries a degree of political risk."


Despite the "community tension" over Freddie Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015 and the Justice Department's investigation of the Police Department, the department's leadership "appeared to place its personal and professional self-interests aside to test persistent surveillance as one means of impacting the increasing violence," the report found. "This is the hallmark of courageous leadership and should be acknowledged (the lack of clarity regarding the implementation of the program notwithstanding)."

The ACLU's Rocah found such praise of police leadership for launching what he considered a secret program "unbelievable."

Rocah said if the Police Foundation found no evidence of the Police Department's intent to keep the program secret, then "one has ample reason to question their skill at evaluation, investigation and assessment, because the evidence is right there in black and white."

The report offered seven recommendations to the department if it decides to move forward with aerial surveillance, including offering opportunities for public input.

It said the department should explain the program clearly to the public; commit to rigorous evaluation by a "competent research partner"; and get an outside opinion on the program's constitutionality.

The department should also implement "transparency and accountability measures"; provide proper training to those who will use the technology; ensure data is properly collected; and conduct a policy analysis to ensure continuity between the aerial surveillance program and other, similar programs.

Smith said the Police Department agrees with the recommendations.

If the department doesn't move forward with the program, it should still develop a "guidebook" for other departments considering such technology, the report said.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun