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The jury is in: Spy plane is out | COMMENTARY

A camera array is seen in the open door of a Cessna at Martin State Airport. The plane has been used for the Aerial Investigation Research pilot program assisting the Baltimore Police Department to investigate certain crimes including homicides. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).
A camera array is seen in the open door of a Cessna at Martin State Airport. The plane has been used for the Aerial Investigation Research pilot program assisting the Baltimore Police Department to investigate certain crimes including homicides. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun). (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

From its beginning five years ago, the concept of planes circling Baltimore with video cameras in hopes of helping police solve violent crimes was a dubious undertaking. The best thing that could be said about it was that it was free — a test of technology by backers hoping to make money selling the equipment and expertise to many other cities. And given Baltimore’s level of violent crime, with a nearly one-a-day homicide rate, it was an offer that was almost impossible to refuse even if it seemed constitutionally suspect as an invasion of privacy. This week, the city was presented with the most rigorous evaluation yet of the plane’s effectiveness by independent researchers from the RAND Corp.

Their conclusion? Mostly a thumb’s down. While it’s true they found police were more likely to solve Baltimore homicides during a six-month period in which they had video evidence (about 55% more likely), that’s extraordinarily misleading. In fact, what they determined was that there was no strong link between the two things. It’s more likely that police are prone to solving homicides that take place in the daylight (if only because of the greater possibility of eyewitnesses), and the spy plane did not fly in the dark. In other words, there was no proven cause and effect. That spy plane video was linked to only 10% of the crimes it was designed to help investigate was a significant finding, too.

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We’ll admit we’ve been skeptical of this enterprise for years and through both its pilot programs. One obvious problem was, as the ACLU so often observed, it amounted to a surveillance dragnet, a level of spying without court order. And there has always been a risk that the evidence might be misused and people who have nothing to do with homicides or crimes of any kind might wrongly have their movements tracked, recorded and perhaps used against them. It’s easy to want to throw the book at killers, but the constitutional rights of Americans, all innocent until proven guilty, should not be cavalierly dismissed. We don’t believe the folks associated with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems seek to infringe rights, but their approach is inherently problematic.

This week’s report, the second from RAND, isn’t the last word on this program — a final analysis is due in the spring. But it doesn’t take a high resolution camera to see the writing on the wall. The Texas couple, Laura and John Arnold, boosting this venture have already indicated they don’t intend to finance a similar project in St. Louis despite recent approval by that city’s Board of Alderman. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison had already expressed doubts about the plane’s effectiveness, pledging only to study the issue further. Again, it was likely only the feeling of despair generated by the city’s stubbornly high homicide numbers (335 last year, 348 in 2019, and 309 in 2018 compared to 197 a decade ago) that opened the door to this aerial experiment in the first place.

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Surely, people will make what they will of the latest report. Some will question whether Baltimore ever gave the project a chance. Others will push the higher clearance rate associated with video evidence as more than it really is. But the real lesson ought to be that reducing violent crime has no simple, technological fix. What Baltimore really needs is a police department that’s held accountable and that residents can fully trust, drug treatment on demand, economic opportunities for people who don’t have them now, more effective and properly resourced schools, and on and on. No one is going to get rich trying to counsel felons to leave the drug trade behind or run a youth rec league or help people find decent paying jobs, but combined such actions are likely to have a more lasting positive impact on this city than any Cessna looking down from above.

We don’t know exactly where this troubling rise of U.S. city homicide rates over the past year stands in the agenda of President Joe Biden, but we know where it stood with his predecessor — mostly as a way to score political points. Baltimore is far from the only urban area facing a homicide crisis despite the COVID-19 pandemic (and despite declining numbers in other crime categories). It’s long past time to aim federal resources at this deadly circumstance. A bad economy, distrust of police, more guns on the street, all may be playing a factor. And all are matters Washington could help address far more effectively than a flying camera.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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