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Baltimore spending board approves surveillance plane pilot program to capture images from city streets

Three privately funded surveillance planes were cleared to begin patrolling Baltimore from the sky Wednesday, despite opposition from multiple civil liberties groups who warned that such surveillance could violate protections in the U.S. Constitution.

The city’s Board of Estimates approved the contract on a 3-2 vote, giving the OK for a six-month pilot of the program. It allows the planes to collect images of the city to help investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings.

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The planes, their pilots, analysts and hanger space will be funded by wealthy Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures. The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week.

Under the deal, the Arnolds also will pay for grants to enable independent researchers to study whether the program has an impact on Baltimore’s violent crime rate. The city has suffered more than 300 homicides annually for the last five years.

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Civil liberties advocates were sharply critical of the plan during the board meeting, which was conducted via conference call due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

David Rocah, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said it was “absurd” for the board to consider the plan, which includes the most far-reaching surveillance technology in the country, during the viral outbreak. Baltimore, like the rest of Maryland, has been under a stay-at-home order since Monday in response to the virus.

Rocah said the technology, which was developed for the U.S. war in Iraq, is capable of showing individual people or cars moving around the city. The resolution of the video may not be clear enough to identify a person, but when coupled with surveillance cameras on the ground, it can be used to track someone’s whereabouts, he said.

That’s a big leap to make during a public health crisis without “meaningful public debate,” Rocah argued.

“We’re going to start a study of this technology’s effectiveness when the entire city and state is on mandatory lockdown?” Rocah questioned. “Virtually none of the data collected now would be usable.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison was the program’s strongest advocate Wednesday, arguing the pilot is needed to determine whether the technology could help reduce the city’s crime rate. Harrison acknowledged he was initially skeptical of the plan, particularly an unsubstantiated claim that it could cut Baltimore’s homicide rate by a third.

But over several months of discussion, the company was able to alleviate several of his concerns, Harrison said. Data from the planes will be stored for only 45 days, unless it is needed for an investigation. The planes can’t be used for real-time surveillance, only to look back, and no one could be arrested solely based on images produced by the planes, Harrison said.

“I fully appreciate that the opponents of this program ... have fundamental and philosophical beliefs against this kind of technology,” Harrison said. “These differing viewpoints are not solely isolated to this claim and extend to many other tools BPD uses every day.”

Harrison pointed to several public meetings, including two hosted on Facebook, as evidence of public support for the surveillance planes. The last online meeting received over 7,000 views, which is far greater than the number of people who would have attended an in-person session, he said.

Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott, who was one of two board members to vote against the plan along with Democratic City Comptroller Joan Pratt, questioned whether the technology was useful in solving homicides or robberies during an earlier trial. It took place in 2016 without the input of Baltimore City Council members or the mayor at the time.

Harrison noted he was not yet police commissioner in 2016 and said poor recordkeeping and communication at the time made the answer to that question unclear. The city approached this contract with more thought and care, he said.

Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, one of the three votes in favor of the surveillance plan, spoke only once during the debate saying, “I stand behind my commissioner.”

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Monique Dixon, director of state advocacy for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued the technology was untested, would do little to build public confidence in the police department and raises constitutional questions, particularly in relationship to the 14th Amendment which prohibits discriminatory actions based on race

Rocah argued the surveillance planes would “supercharge” the effectiveness of city’s existing camera network which is not “distributed in Baltimore in a racially neutral way.”

“They are overwhelmingly located in Baltimore’s black and brown neighborhoods,” he said. “The racial impact of this technology is significant.”

Harrison said Rocah’s argument lacked context.

“The cameras were placed strategically based on incidents of violent crime over time,” he said. “While that may coincidentally be in some black and brown neighborhoods, it’s the crime over time that determines where the cameras are placed.”

Matthew Garbark, acting director of public works, and Dana Moore, acting city solicitor, also approved the plan. Both positions are appointed by Young, and typically follow the mayor’s lead with their votes.

The aerial surveillance program — derided by critics as the “spy plane” — has become highly politicized in the lead-up to Baltimore’s competitive mayoral Democratic primary.

Scott, running for the seat, is the only major candidate to oppose it.

Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, former U.S. Treasury official Mary Miller, former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith and former state deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah all have expressed support for the pilot.

Vignarajah counts the Arnolds as major campaign backers. He criticized members of the spending panel for initially withholding a copy of the program agreement, though Scott eventually released it to the public Tuesday night.

“I continue to believe a warrant requirement is essential to safeguard the community’s privacy and the constitutional rights of everyone in Baltimore,” he said in a statement. "I urge BPD and prosecutors to use this valuable tool in a constitutionally responsible way.”

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Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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