The controversial surveillance planes circling above Baltimore proved a slight aid to the crime fight in their first three months, helping detectives make an arrest at a rate about 5 percentage points higher than normal.
These findings were made by independent researchers with the nonprofit Rand Corp. and released Friday in a preliminary report. Baltimore Police commanders said they are drawing no conclusions about the effectiveness of the planes at this time.
“This report provides an extensive review of the program’s progress, while fulfilling our commitment to transparency in sharing data on where the program is at its halfway mark,” Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in a statement. “We will continue to be guided by our research partners on the effectiveness of the program and other metrics of performance.”
The so-called spy planes have been the subject of intense controversy and faced court challenges by advocates of civil liberties who call the camera-equipped planes an invasion of privacy.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Rocah said the report’s statistics come up short of justifying the program.
“All of this is correlation — not causation," he said. “There’s nothing in this about whether the data was even useful, much less necessary to solving any particular case. So all of this is totally meaningless."
Rand Corp. researchers found the planes produced video evidence for 81 cases between May 1 and July 31, 2020. That means the planes were up and within range at the time of these crimes.
Of these 81 cases, detectives made an arrest 21% of the time. This includes six homicides, six shootings, four armed robberies and one carjacking. Meanwhile, the planes did not capture evidence for nearly 700 other crimes during the same three months. Detectives made an arrest in 16% of those cases.
The surveillance plane program has been operating in limited scope during those months as part of a six-month trial run. The researchers determined that they did not have enough data after three months to draw a conclusion about the program’s effectiveness.
In addition, they write, Baltimore Police have received 63 complaints about the program, including 43 about the loud noise of the flights. The researchers note a third, quieter plane is being deployed to help reduce noise.
Criticism erupted in 2016 after it was discovered the surveillance planes were secretly flying over Baltimore unbeknownst to many city officials and without public notice. The planes were grounded.
Harrison was sworn in nearly three years later; after initially opposing a trial run, he changed positions and supported it. The commissioner has pledged to conduct the surveillance in a way that protects personal privacy and the collected images. The planes can’t be used for real-time surveillance, only to look back.
The nonprofit ACLU sued to ground the planes and sought an emergency injunction, saying the planes "amounted to the “most wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an American city.”
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On Friday, Rocah said it doesn’t matter whether the program helps police solve cases.
“Claims about utility are not relevant to constitutionality,” he said. “There are a lot of things that would be useful for police to do, but the Constitution prohibits.”
In April, a federal judge denied the injunction. The ACLU brought its arguments Thursday to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The three-judge panel has not made a ruling on the appeal.
In the lower court, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett said he was reluctant to ground the spy planes, considering the city suffers rampant gun violence. Baltimore has seen more than 300 homicides a year in each of the last three years. In 2020, 231 people have been killed as of Friday, according to police statistics.
Police have said they would judge the pilot program by several metrics: whether aerial surveillance helps cops solve crimes, boosts community relations and deters criminals.
The Policing Project at the New York University School of Law is expected to evaluate issues such as civil liberties and data protection affected by the surveillance plane, while the University of Baltimore would examine the community response and the Rand Corp. would look at the program’s efficacy.
The program is paid for by wealthy Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures.