The Greater Baltimore Committee announced its “strong support” Wednesday for putting aerial surveillance planes above Baltimore, urging city officials to adopt the technology in an effort to reduce crime.
“Given the current level of violent crime, it seems reasonable that a new technology that is being offered as an added public safety investigative tool at no cost to the city should be tried for the benefit of all citizens,” the leading business group’s board of directors wrote in a policy statement provided to The Baltimore Sun.
The board said it fully endorsed the existing crime plan of Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who has been skeptical of the planes, but believes the city also should take advantage of offers from outside philanthropists to pay for three years of aerial surveillance — to the tune of $6.6 million — as part of what the GBC called a “proof of concept” phase.
“The application of aerial surveillance to support law enforcement needs to be tested somewhere — why not Baltimore?” the GBC board wrote.
Harrison, who met in private Friday with the GBC, reiterated his skepticism of the proposal Wednesday — calling it an “experiment” that lacks evidence of its effectiveness and therefore lacks his support.
But he said he would not stand in the way of private interests testing the planes above the city.
“First of all, there are planes flying in the sky right now, so if they want to fly, they are welcome to fly. And if there’s data that somebody wants to give me, of course we’ll take data,” Harrison said. “I cannot in good conscience as a professional support something [with] zero evidence that tells us that it can or cannot work. It’s based on a presumption.”
The GBC’s announcement follows the release this week of a poll, criticized by some as relying on leading questions, that found widespread support for the surveillance planes among the public.
The $40,000 poll was commissioned by the Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of the Union Baptist Church in Upton and a member of the GBC board, and paid for by the Abell Foundation. Bob Embry, the influential head of the foundation, is also a member of the GBC board, and its secretary.
At a meeting Monday, religious leaders in the city discussed the results of the poll and decided they needed more time to come to a decision on whether to endorse the plans.
Ross McNutt, of the Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance, which previously operated a single plane above Baltimore as part of a controversial and initially secret pilot program in 2016, has since pitched city leaders on flying three surveillance planes over the city using $2.2 million in donated funds per year for three years.
The planes could capture most of the city at any given time, and fly for most daylight hours, McNutt has said. Detectives then could use the footage to go back in time to watch individuals and vehicles coming and going from crime scenes, and pull footage from ground-level CitiWatch cameras to identify suspects, he said.
Laura and John Arnold, philanthropists from Texas, have expressed strong interest in funding the project if it is accepted by city leaders. McNutt also has pitched the plane surveillance program in St. Louis.
Hathaway’s poll of 500 registered voters in Baltimore found 74% of respondents would generally support “a program to conduct aerial surveillance over the city of Baltimore to reduce serious crimes like murder,” with 20% opposed and 6% unsure.
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A similar percentage split — 72% in support, 23% opposed — occurred in response to this more detailed description: “A small aircraft flies over the city and provides images that track vehicles and people to and from reported crime scenes. The information is then provided to the Baltimore Police Department to help them solve crimes. An outside independent oversight group would ensure that the system is not being abused, and the program would be entirely paid for by a private donor.”
Hart Research Associates, which conducted the poll, reached residents by phone Oct. 2-6. Respondents were 59% black and 35% white, and 45% male and 55% female. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5%.
Critics, including the ACLU of Maryland, said the questions used in the polling were leading. They also say that the planes would be a gross overreach of power in the hands of government and a private company, giving them surveillance power over law abiding citizens and criminals alike.
In its policy statement Wednesday, the Greater Baltimore Committee acknowledged the privacy concerns, but said they are overblown and outweighed by the program’s potential benefits.
“While those concerns are worthy of consideration, the GBC Board does not believe that the application of the aerial surveillance technology serves as a threat to individual privacy any more than the daily utilization of cameras that are prevalent in our society today,” it wrote.
If adopted, the program must operate within the confines of the city’s federal consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, and be compatible with Harrison’s crime plan, the board wrote.
“This innovative approach to crime solving is a program that is deserving of support of the Mayor, Baltimore City Council, Baltimore Police Department and the residents of the city in the fight to reduce violent crime,” the GBC board wrote.