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Baltimore Police Department holds first community forum on surveillance plane that’s set to launch in April

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held the first of three community forums on Wednesday March 11, 2020, to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane launching in April.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held the first of three community forums on Wednesday March 11, 2020, to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane launching in April.(McKenna Oxenden)

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison made the case Wednesday night before a skeptical crowd for why and how Baltimore would conduct a trial of controversial surveillance planes.


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It was the first of three community input meetings the police department is planning to hold before Harrison launches the planes sometime in early April. Three years ago it was revealed that the planes were secretly being used and since then the program had been shelved.

During the community meeting at Dorothy I. Height Elementary School in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood, about 20 residents showed up to raise concerns about privacy and the planes actually working.

Harrison emphasized that the planes are a pilot program and will only last 180 days. Data will then be analyzed to determine whether the department should enter into a potential three-year agreement with private philanthropists from Texas. He also said the department is working with Morgan State University, the University of Baltimore, New York University and RAND Corporation.

“They will help determine the validity of the program and efficacy of the program and see if it works,” Harrison said. “If it [the data and research] tells us we didn’t have any impact on solve rates, the data will speak for itself and we’ll stop.”

The plane will focus on targeting four specific crime categories: fatal shootings, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. The commissioner said other crimes will be considered by him on a “case-by-case basis” and that the plane will be used only for “serious” cases of misconduct. The plane is expected to fly a minimum of 40 hours a week and cover 32 square miles of the city.

Harrison said the surveillance resolution is one pixel per person and can’t identify any specific individual because it only appears as a dot on the screen. David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, who has been vocal in not supporting the plane, called Harrison’s comments “misleading.”

“Seeing a pixel on a screen doesn’t solve a crime,” Rocah said. “If it couldn’t identify anyone, there would be no purpose of deploying it.”

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.

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“It’s a vendor who already lied [by secretly flying the plane] and now we’re supposed to trust them?” Rocah said.

The police commissioner was previously opposed to using the plane, but in December he decided to back the plane because he said he felt that the ethics of the program improved. Baltimore will become the first city in the country to use the technology, Harrison said.

Surveillance data from the plane will be stored for 45 days by the vendor and when a case or incident number is assigned, an analyst will produce an evidence package and send it to the police investigator on the case.

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham Sr., president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association, said he is not sure a surveillance plane is the right thing for Baltimore. The 69-year-old lifelong Baltimore resident expressed frustration at the end of the meeting, saying he still felt he had unanswered questions.

Cheatham said he invited representatives from Persistent Surveillance Systems to attend his monthly community meeting and is hoping to gain more clarity.

“We need something to happen, but I’m not sure it’s this,” he said. “But anyone who is completely opposed to us looking at this, ask them how many homicides they have in their neighborhood.”

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