Why should we trust Baltimore police with aerial surveillance technology?

A private company is trying to surveil the city, claiming it will help reduce crime and identify police misconduct. As The Sun reported last week, Persistent Surveillance Systems seeks to bring back its Cessna airplane to conduct aerial surveillance over roughly a third of the city. Baltimore’s serious concerns about violent crime and police misconduct are justified. However, providing a police force that has yet to earn back our trust with unfettered access to aerial surveillance is not the answer. Without significant safeguards and oversight, the privacy implications and constitutional concerns are simply too great.

Last year, without disclosing to the public or elected officials, Persistent began its aerial surveillance of Baltimore with private funding funneled through a foundation created on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department. The BPD never reported this contract to the Board of Estimates, which is charged with overseeing purchases made by city agencies. Persistent was literally trying to fly under the radar of the citizens of Baltimore, an inauspicious start for a company that claims transparency as a guiding principle. Once the program came to light, the public outcry was deafening.

The mayor is now considering allowing Persistent Surveillance to return to the city if there is enough community support. The mayor has not mentioned whether there have been any rigorous assessments of the technology’s effectiveness. Moreover, she has failed to address what, if any, guidelines, accountability or oversight would be placed on this private entity or any of the new, expanded technology. Of all times, now is the worst moment to entrust the city’s police department with new technology that is so vast in scope and raises clear privacy implications without having clear standards and mechanisms surrounding its use firmly in place.

A recent Police Foundation study of Baltimore’s prior use of Persistent Surveillance could not quantify the value of this technology. While identifying some potential benefits, the foundation also recognized the unintended consequences that could arise from its use. As a result, it recommended that any consideration of bringing Persistent Surveillance back should include, among other things: a rigorous evaluation by a competent research partner; an external assessment of the constitutionality of the technology, policies and practices; and established transparency and accountability measures. The mayor is rashly considering this technology based on its availability at low cost, without first addressing these important underlying needs.

New surveillance capabilities raise concerns about how powerful investigatory tools typically reserved for military purposes may now be turned against certain communities. More than ever, local communities must be at the forefront of discussions aimed at striking a balance between constitutional rights and crime fighting. Technology alone cannot solve crimes. Technology is a tool used by people; it can sometimes assist with investigations, sometimes infringe on basic privacy rights and sometimes do both. To be effective and lawful, law enforcement and their private entity partners need serious guidelines and oversight.

It’s time to put regulations and oversight mechanisms in place to ensure that we take advantage of the positive aspects of this technology without suffering an undue loss to our civil liberties. The framers of the Constitution understood very deeply that the government too needs to be governed. Baltimore’s struggle with violent crime and police misconduct will not be solved overnight. We don’t need to give the police powerful and untested technology. What we need are thoughtful solutions that respect the constitutional rights of everyone.

Jeffrey Gilleran (jgilleran@opd.state.md.us) is chief attorney for the Forensics Division at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

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