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Aerial surveillance persists in Baltimore, despite concerns, pandemic | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held a community forum on Wednesday March 11, 2020 to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane launching in April.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison held a community forum on Wednesday March 11, 2020 to gather input from residents about their thoughts on a surveillance plane launching in April.(McKenna Oxenden)

The Baltimore Board of Estimates is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a contract between police and Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems LLC to launch a second, larger aerial surveillance pilot program in the city in mid-April. We were against the pilot the first time around in 2016 for multiple reasons — including the secretive manner in which it was conducted, the complete loss of personal privacy and the potential to target certain citizens in violation of their civil rights. And our position hasn’t changed.

We recognize, however, that this plane has left the hangar, so to speak, and that the city’s spending board could very well approve the agreement, which won’t cost Baltimore anything during the trial (what it could cost later if fully implemented is unclear). The political pressure to do something big to stem violent crime in the city is simply too great, even with our attention largely turned toward a pandemic. Baltimore is still averaging a homicide a day with social distancing and stay-home directives in place.

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If they sanction the project, which we hope they don’t, they must take full responsibility for it along with everyone else who’s pushed it forward, however. They must make certain that promised safeguards are put into practice. We can’t have another pilot like the first, which completely lacked transparency and a credible analysis of the program’s performance and potential. Unfortunately, there are already signs of trouble.

The first pilot, carried out under then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, was so secret that not even the mayor was briefed on it before it began collecting and storing images, in the hopes of capturing criminal movement, of unsuspecting city neighborhoods using a small Cessna airplane. The only reason we were told about it at all is because the publicity-seeking company — not the public servants — told a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter, who published a story.

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It was at least the second time Persistent Surveillance Systems conducted a secret test with law enforcement; the first was in 2012 in Los Angeles, when the sheriff’s department let the plane fly for nine days over Compton. Residents didn’t find out until a year later. The sheriff’s department declined to sign a contract for further flights.

In Baltimore, the initial pilot produced no discernible benefit four years ago. After 300 hours of flight time over two periods, during which there were about 100 murders in the city, the company provided police briefings on just five homicide cases, only one of which resulted in conviction; and whether that had anything to do with the spy plane is unclear.

This time around, under Commissioner Michael Harrison, the police department has been somewhat more forthcoming in an apparent effort to avoid the backlash of the first go-round, which outraged elected officials and civil liberties watchdogs. They were justifiably concerned black Baltimoreans would disproportionately be targeted for police observation, as they have in the past, and that there would no longer be an expectation of personal privacy in the city.

“I’m angry that I didn’t know about it and we did it in secrecy, which is unacceptable,” said then-City Councilman Brandon Scott.

Today, Mr. Scott is City Council president and a member of the Board of Estimates. He’s also a candidate for mayor. His vote Wednesday, like that of sitting Mayor Jack Young’s, will likely reflect the level of personal and political pressure each is feeling to address violent crime, a top issue for Baltimore voters.

Mr. Young, who’s also running to hold onto his seat, has already said he supports the plan for the second pilot, which he says is “transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions.”

Mr. Scott was more skeptical: “This, to me, seems like the latest of what I would call drastic reaching,” he said in December. “The concerns about it being effective are still there.”

Commissioner Harrison, too, was skeptical at first, but has since shifted gears to embrace the plane as a potential new “investigative tool.” He met with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board in early March, shortly before the state closed schools amid coronavirus concerns, to discuss his decision to green-light a second pilot. And the police department has put together a “community education presentation” to sell it to the city.

“Independent Research Partners will evaluate effectiveness of the program,” one slide states in all capital letters. “If research determines little to no impact on the measures for success, then BPD will ground the plane and discontinue operations. Independent Civilian Auditors will review system use logs to ensure program is only being used for its intended public safety purpose.”

That all looks pretty good, but Commissioner Harrison declined to release contract details until the last minute, which hardly screams “transparency.” And the fact that all of this is occurring amid a global pandemic makes it feel rushed and under-analyzed. What will it even look like with a stay-at-home order in place? Will that help, or hurt data collection? No one’s said.

Persistent Surveillance Systems likes to say it could reduce violent crime by 30% in one year, without any evidence to back it up — something Commissioner Harrison acknowledged to the board. Still, the governor has endorsed the company’s plane plan, as has the Abell Foundation and the public safety committee of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents regional business interests.

This time around, there would be three planes flying instead of one; and they are to be in the air for six months and at least 1,000 hours, instead of 300. There is to be oversight, paid for by the Abell Foundation, and a research team analyzing the program. Both are welcome improvements over round one.

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But in the end, we would still be guinea pigs in an experiment between a for a profit-driven company without much of a track record and a police department with a history of constitutional violations. To say we’re uncomfortable with that is an understatement.

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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