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Cummings: Commissioner Davis 'apologized profusely' for not disclosing surveillance program

Cummings: Commissioner Davis 'apologized profusely' for not disclosing surveillance program
Rep. Elijah Cummings says he met with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis to discuss the department's trial aerial surveillance program on Thursday. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis "apologized profusely" at a meeting with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings for failing to disclose an aerial surveillance program that has been operating for months above Baltimore, Cummings said Friday.

"I do believe that he was sincere, and he realized that he created a significant hurdle with regards to the acceptance of the public of this program because of that lack of transparency," Cummings said in briefing The Baltimore Sun on the conversation.

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Davis has said little about the program in public. After the surveillance was first disclosed last week in media reports, police spokesman T.J. Smith dismissed claims that the program was secret, instead suggesting it was a simple expansion of the city's street-level CitiWatch camera system.

A private company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, has conducted about 300 hours of aerial surveillance covering about 32 square miles of the city at a time from a Cessna airplane thousands of feet in the air. The trial program, which began in January and has conducted flights intermittently since then, was privately funded and never presented to the city's Board of Estimates for approval.

The footage collected under the program does not allow for the identification of individuals because its images are low-resolution, according to police and Persistent Surveillance, the company conducting the flights. But the company's analysts, and thus police, can track individuals and vehicles to see where potential suspects came from and go in the period before and after a crime, police said.

The program was not disclosed to the public, and key city and state officials also were kept in the dark. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe, then-City Solicitor George Nilson, state lawmakers and many other top-level officials in city government were not told about the program until months after it began, officials said.

Cummings requested the meeting with Davis, which occurred Thursday evening and lasted about an hour and a half, after learning of the surveillance program through local news reports, he said.

Cummings said he told Davis that the secrecy around the program "goes against the very thing that we would have expected" from the department following the recent U.S. Department of Justice report that found police transparency was severely lacking in the city.

"I also told him that I don't think that the Police Department, particularly in light of the DOJ report, should take a position of 'My way or the highway,'" Cummings said.

He said he told Davis that it was important that "he have buy-in from the legal community, the civil rights community and the religious community and the general public" if he intends to move forward with the program.

"I told him all of that is very, very important — that they open it up as wide as they can so the public can see how it works."

Smith said the meeting between Cummings and Davis was "very productive."

"We discussed the technology, its benefit to the crime fight and ways to better involve the community," Smith said. "The police commissioner looks forward to showing and discussing the technology more in the coming days."

Asked about Davis' apology for the lack of transparency, or whether Davis would offer a similar apology to the public, Smith repeated that Davis looks forward to sharing more information about the program in the future.

Davis has declined requests from The Sun for comment on the program or the reason for not disclosing it publicly.

Cummings said he came away from his meeting with Davis more informed about the potential benefits of the program in a city suffering from a deluge of daytime shootings.

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"I could see the value of the program, and I say that because when you have situations where a significant percentage of your most violent crimes are taking place outdoors, and in many instances in broad daylight, it is good to be able to figure out where the alleged assailant came from and where they went to after committing an offense," Cummings said.

But, he added, "all kinds of questions need to be asked and answered," including how residents' civil rights can be protected.

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