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Baltimore Police back pilot program for surveillance planes, reviving controversial program

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he is supporting a pilot program to use three private surveillance planes over the city.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said Friday he now supports a pilot program to fly three private surveillance planes over the city, reviving a controversial effort that had been shelved since it was revealed to have been used secretly three years ago.

Harrison, who as recently as two months ago said he was skeptical of the planes, said the trial run will commence in May, funded by philanthropic dollars. Baltimore will become the first city in the country to use the technology, Harrison said.

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“I’m obviously well aware of the plane’s controversial history,” Harrison said. “I’m looking forward to hearing from our community and to educate them on what this is and what this is not.”

Harrison previously said the plane system’s proponents had oversold its benefits and it was unproven to work. His apparent reversal followed a lobbying campaign that included members of the Greater Baltimore Committee endorsing the program and a prominent pastor presenting a poll that claimed to show community support. It also has become an issue in the mayor’s race, with at least one candidate receiving support from the system backers and city officials arguing over whether the technology should be adopted.

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The planes are being pushed by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold through an Ohio company called Persistent Surveillance Systems. The 2016 pilot program, revealed in a Bloomberg report, was halted amid criticism of its secrecy and condemnations from civil liberties advocates who say the system represents a sweeping overreach of surveillance that violates individuals’ rights.

But, Harrison said Friday, with the proper oversight, it could represent “another tool” in the police department’s fight against rampant violent crime.

Harrison said he anticipates holding a series of community meetings, to inform residents and listen to them.

The planes, recording from 8,500 feet in the air during daylight hours, will not be used for real-time surveillance, he said, but will rather help officers investigate past shootings and robberies. They will not be used to investigate police misconduct during the trial run. Officers will not have direct access to the footage.

He also pledged to ground the planes if they do not generate results. The pilot program will last between four and six months.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said in statement that he fully supports Harrison and that the plan outlined Friday is “transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions.”

The commissioner said Young did not push him toward his decision.

Baltimore City Council members have raised concerns for years that the surveillance plane company hasn’t provided them information that proves the efficacy of such a program.

“This, to me, seems like the latest of what I would call drastic reaching,” City Council President Brandon Scott said Friday. “The concerns about it being effective are still there.”

The council will be closely monitoring data as it comes out, he said, and whether the police department’s use of the planes aligns with the federal consent decree it is under with the Department of Justice.

“The plane may make some of us feel safer,” Scott said. “But there’s no data that it makes us safer — and that’s what the council will be monitoring.”

Gov. Larry Hogan said earlier this year that he supported the plane, and backers also have cited support from dozens of victims, community groups and business organizations. A spokeswoman for Hogan said Friday that he “strongly supports” the program.

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The ACLU of Maryland blasted Harrison’s decision, saying it will “impact the privacy rights of black and brown residents for generations to come," and that residents’ movements would be “held by a completely unaccountable, private, for-profit company.”

“The surveillance plane means putting every resident of Baltimore under permanent surveillance, creating a video record of everywhere that everyone goes every time they walk outside," the ACLU said. “If the police did that in real life, in person on our streets, we would never accept it.”

Both the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender said they were not consulted about the decision.

Jeff Gilleran, head of the public defender’s forensics division, said his office was “deeply troubled” by the announcement and compared the technology to what “despotic regimes across the globe employ to surveil their most vulnerable citizens.”

City Solicitor Andre Davis said the law department is “entirely comfortable with the program.”

The surveillance planes add to an array of technology already in use for crime-fighting purposes, such as a network of more than 700 street-level surveillance cameras and gunshot detection technology that uses sensors to pinpoint where and when shootings occur. Earlier this year, officials said 8 percent of the CCTV cameras do not work properly. The police department also has a helicopter unit, Foxtrot.

John Arnold, the Texas philanthropist whose foundation is providing the funding, said in a statement that they "hope to learn whether this technology can be a useful part of Baltimore’s crime reduction strategy.”

Since 2016, supporters have been trying to relaunch the planes, pitching a three-year, $6.6 million program that would put three planes over the city simultaneously. Each would have the capability of covering 32 square miles at a time, and fly 40 to 50 hours a week.

Harrison confirmed that the trial program would involve three planes.

Ross McNutt of Persistent Surveillance told city officials in an August presentation that the technology allows analysts to follow potential suspects from crime scenes, either in real-time or by reviewing footage. People appear as tiny dots, and their faces and other identifying characteristics are unclear.

“We can ‘rewind time’ and watch the crimes occur and follow the people and vehicles from the crime scene to the houses [they] come from and go to and the routes they take,” McNutt wrote in an Aug. 9 email to Sheryl Goldstein, Young’s deputy chief of staff.

The program also has been used by defense attorneys “to show innocence and to challenge police statements,” McNutt has said.

McNutt said in an interview that he took part via phone in a briefing with police to members of the consent decree oversight team on Thursday.

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“They were very interested in how it would fit within the consent decree, how privacy protections were being addressed,” McNutt said. “We look forward to the full evaluation, and want to do this in a very open and transparent way.”

The surveillance plane — often derided as a “spy plane” — has become increasingly politicized as Baltimore prepares for a heavily contested Democratic mayoral primary election in April.

Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah recently raised roughly $20,000 at a Texas fundraiser hosted by the Arnolds. His campaign’s crime plan calls for getting the aerial surveillance program off the ground. Vignarajah’s campaign touted his early support Friday, saying he was “the most clear-eyed and consistent supporter” among the mayoral candidates.

Former Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith, another candidate who supports the plane’s use, accused the city’s leadership of “making political theater out of human life." He questioned why their decision comes now, given tepid positions in the past.

Stefanie Mavronis, spokeswoman for Scott, who also is running for mayor, emphasized that the plane is only expected to go up in May, shortly after the primary election.

“We know what this is about, and it’s not the safety of Baltimore residents,” she said.

Young campaign spokesman Myles Handy said that “election day was not factored into the timing of the decision.”

“The mayor is focused on doing what’s necessary to reduce crime; it’s that simple," Handy said.

City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who chairs the public safety committee, also questioned the lag between announcing the pilot program and its anticipated start date. If police believed the program will make a big difference in reducing crime, he said, he’d “assume they’d be putting it up in the air as early as next week.”

“Being that the police department feels that this is an important pilot to run, I would hope they would do it expeditiously,” he said. “We need to end the bloodshed immediately.”

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