FBI releases 'complete collection' of surveillance videos from Baltimore protests, unrest

The FBI has released its "complete collection" of surveillance footage from several nights of protests and unrest after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore last year.

The video, released after Freedom of Information Act requests were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The Baltimore Sun, shows large crowds marching en masse through Baltimore's streets at certain points and breaking with a curfew in place at the time at others. At one point, it shows a large number of police squad cars milling around a small crowd of people. At another point, the streets below appear empty.


The quality of the video — hours and hours of it — varies. And as noted by the ACLU's Nathan Freed Wessler and Naomi Dwork on Thursday, "the magnification isn't enough to identify individual faces."

The FBI first admitted to providing aircraft for surveillance flights over Baltimore in the weeks after the unrest , after aviation buffs and journalists began asking questions about unusual flights above the city.


"The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground," said FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson at the time. "The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity."

In October, additional documents obtained by the ACLU revealed more about the operation: that FBI aircraft made 10 flights and logged more than 36 hours, mostly at night. They used video as well as infrared images, and a member of the Baltimore Police Department joined federal agents on some of the flights.

Wessler, an ACLU attorney, wrote at the time that there may be times when aerial surveillance is an "appropriate law enforcement tool," but that "it is essential that accurate information about such surveillance be available to the public, and that strict rules be in place to protect against unjustified mass surveillance or warrantless collection of private information."

The organization, and the Sun, kept pushing for access to the footage.

Late last month, the FBI informed the Sun that while 22 DVDs of the footage would be made available for collection at a cost of several hundred dollars in response to the Sun's FOIA request, the FBI also had decided to make the footage available online.

The video released on the FBI's website this week — which you can access here — includes footage from April 29, 2015 through May 3, 2015, a period after the bulk of the looting and rioting and during the time that the nightly curfew was in place.

Gray, 25, suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the back of a police van on April 12, 2015. He died a week later, on April 19, 2015. His death was followed by widespread and largely peaceful protests. Then, on April 27, 2015, the day of Gray's funeral, rioting, looting and arson broke out. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake instituted the curfew and Gov. Larry Hogan sent in the Maryland National Guard.

Law enforcement from various surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and from neighboring states also responded to assist the Baltimore Police Department in maintaining order in the city. The FBI was among them.


The release of the footage comes more than a year after Pete Cimbolic, a Baltimore aviation enthusiast, dug through public flight data on the website and found a small propeller plane flying in arcs over West Baltimore, and a jet following a similar path on a larger scale, and The Baltimore Sun combed the data on the site and found a third plane over the city.

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Questions have persisted about the surveillance techniques since.

Wessler and Dwork, a speech, privacy and technology undergraduate ACLU intern, said on Thursday that the released videos "offer a rare and comprehensive view of the workings of a government surveillance operation." They also said the release "addresses some questions" and "leaves others unanswered."

The ACLU and other privacy organizations have long raised questions about government surveillance of protests, and the possible implications.

Federal prosecutors have repeatedly used surveillance images from the ground to charge and convict individuals involved in criminal activity during last year's unrest in Baltimore — including on assault and arson charges — but the FBI's aerial footage has not been used.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.