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Mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah talks about his proposal to get an aerial surveillance program started again.

A group of Baltimore religious leaders on Monday tabled a proposal to endorse putting crime-fighting surveillance planes back into the skies above Baltimore, deciding they needed more time to study the initiative before staking out a position.

The Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Upton, had raised the issue for consideration by members of the Ministers’ Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity after commissioning a poll, paid for by the Abell Foundation, that found broad support for the planes among city residents.

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Hathaway said the leaders had “a lively and thoughtful discussion” during a private meeting Monday. He could not be reached for additional comment.

The decision came amid praise for and scrutiny of Hathaway’s poll, after The Baltimore Sun reported its findings, noting that its questions referred to possible benefits of the planes, such as crime reduction, but not critiques, such as their impact on law-abiding citizens.

Ross McNutt, of the Ohio-based company Persistent Surveillance, has pitched city leaders on flying three surveillance planes above Baltimore using $2.2 million in donated funds per year for three years. He says detectives could use the footage to go back in time to watch individuals and vehicles coming and going from crime scenes, then pull footage from ground-level CitiWatch cameras to identify suspects.

McNutt and the Baltimore Police secretly piloted one plane above Baltimore in 2016, before their work was revealed and ended. In the face of new proposals to revive it, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said there’s insufficient evidence of the planes’ effectiveness.

The 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. Similar responses — 72% in support, 23% opposed — were found when respondents were given 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.”

The poll was conducted by Hart Research Associates, a major polling outfit, with $40,000 from Abell, which backs the planes. The polling reached residents Oct. 2-6 by phone, 56% on cell phones. Respondents were 59% black and 35% white, and 45% male and 55% female. The poll had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%.

In 2016, Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, answers questions at a press conference on the Baltimore Police Department's use of private funding to work with his company to provide aerial surveillance of Baltimore for months in secret.
In 2016, Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, answers questions at a press conference on the Baltimore Police Department's use of private funding to work with his company to provide aerial surveillance of Baltimore for months in secret. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun)

Backers of the planes cited the poll results Monday.

“We need our city politicians to get off the fence and act,” said Thiru Vignarajah, a Democratic mayoral candidate, during an afternoon news conference. “If a poll is what it takes for these city politicians to do what is right, then so be it. …. There is a murder crisis that is unfolding now.”

Opponents of the surveillance criticized the poll, calling its questions leading. David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said the results were no surprise given the questions explicitly connected the surveillance with reductions in homicides.

“If you tell people that the plane only tracks vehicles from crime scenes, and ask whether they think the police should use that information to solve crimes, it’s surprising that anyone would say no. But the plane doesn’t only track vehicles from crime scenes," Rocah said in an email.

“In design and intent, it tracks and creates a permanent record of everywhere that everyone goes whenever they leave their house, and the data is held by a private company,” Rocah said.

Bob Embry, head of the Abell Foundation and one of the surveillance program’s most influential backers, said Monday that he and the foundation’s board support the reintroduction of the planes and agreed unanimously to fund the poll after being asked by Hathaway.

Embry said those involved “wanted the poll to be even-handed; we didn’t want it biased one way or the other,” and he believed the questions were fair.

“I’m sure that however it was worded, somebody would be unhappy with it," he said.

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Fred Yang, of Hart Research, referred questions to Hathaway. Hathaway has said the poll supports with data what he has heard anecdotally from residents — that they support the surveillance.

Mileah Kromer, an associate professor of political science and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, which produces the Goucher Poll, said the Hart Research questions appeared to link the planes with crime reduction, and people should view the results within that context.

“You can’t say across the board we are all on board for surveillance, but it does suggest that people really want a reduction in this serious crime, and they are willing to support aerial surveillance to get it," she said.

Whether the planes truly would reduce crime as described is another question, she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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