The Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore Community Support Group discuss the aerial surveillance of Baltimore that has taken place in Baltimore for months. (Caitlin Faw, Baltimore Sun video)
A month after being revealed for the first time, the aerial surveillance program that the Baltimore Police Department has repeatedly insisted was never secret remains heavily shrouded from the public.
"Secrecy is not the correct word because it's not a secret spy program. That is absolutely false. This is not a secret program," said T.J. Smith, the department's chief spokesman, after a report revealed Aug. 23 that the department was using a private company to conduct aerial surveillance of vast swaths of the city from a small Cessna plane flying thousands of feet above.
The public was unaware of the program, as were Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Baltimore City Council, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe, then-City Solicitor George Nilson, Gov. Larry Hogan, state legislators, Maryland's representatives to Congress and the local police union.
Many of those officials expressed frustration that the program was kept from them, and called for greater transparency. Some, like Mosby and DeWolfe, sent letters to the police department asking for more information. Others, like Rep. Elijah Cummings, spoke directly with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and urged him to come forward with as much information about the program as possible. Cummings said "all kinds of questions need to be asked and answered."
Since then, many questions have been asked, including by The Baltimore Sun, but few have been answered. And Davis has remained mum.
Three weeks ago, Smith said Davis "looks forward to showing and discussing the technology more in the coming days." More than two weeks ago, Davis declined to answer questions when asked directly about the program, saying his department had already made it clear that answers would be coming at a later date.
That date has not been specified. And plenty remains unknown about the program, which continues to operate. Officials have said the plane may be used during several large events next month.
The program, operated by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, has already conducted about 300 hours of surveillance above the city, recording more than 32 square miles at a time. Analysts working for the company have used the footage in several criminal cases, and have the ability to move back and forth through time to track individuals and vehicles approaching and leaving crime scenes.
It remains unclear whether the department has any policies in place to govern how the program operates, or if commanders who agreed to the program considered the potential implications in court, where such footage could be used as evidence by prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys.
A contract between the police department and Persistent Surveillance Systems has not been disclosed, as the program was paid for using charitable donations to third-party foundations — meaning the deal never went before the city's spending panel, the Board of Estimates.
Police have not said when the surveillance was conducted, or which criminal cases it has been used in. They have also not provided any access to the operation, whether at the offices where company analysts have worked or in the plane itself.
Police have also provided only limited images from the surveillance footage, and none of the video.
Meanwhile, requests made by The Baltimore Sun under the state's Public Information Act for such documentation and access have been met with a blanket response from the department's legal affairs department, granting nothing and suggesting only that the requests are under review.
"The Custodian of Records for BPD's Homeland Security is reviewing requests for records concerning Persistent Surveillance Systems and will provide all disclosable records upon completion of the review," wrote Wayne Brooks, who handles information requests for the department, in an Aug. 30 email to The Baltimore Sun.
Asked for an update this week, Brooks said that all requests for records related to the surveillance program "are being reviewed and all available records are being collected."
Public agencies in Maryland are required to provide requested public documents as soon as they are available.