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Can we finally give a firm 'no' to the surveillance plane?

A new effort is afoot to resurrect the Baltimore police surveillance plane by recasting it as a tool to fight corrupt cops. Archie Williams is among those leading the charge to put the spy plane back in the air. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun video)

We have been skeptics of the Persistent Surveillance program since we first learned that the Baltimore Police Department had authorized a private company to fly a Cessna over the city and record images of every person, car and building in a massive swath of land, every second, without telling anyone about it, including the mayor. We heard out company officials in an editorial board meeting earlier this year in which they demonstrated how the technology can be used to track criminal suspects from a scene of violence, and we have watched as they have sought to build support among community groups, with at least some success. But our view has not changed. Although the technology is impressive, we do not believe it addresses the basic roadblocks Baltimore police face in catching violent criminals, the problems prosecutors face in securing convictions or, certainly, the underlying causes of the city's crime. Given the mistrust that plagues police-community relations, handing over such a sensitive part of Baltimore's crime fighting efforts to a private, profit-motivated company might actually make things worse.

Baltimore City Council Public Safety Committee Chairman Brandon Scott has agreed to hold a hearing about whether the city should authorize a private company to fly a surveillance plane to film criminal activity. Persistent Surveillance Systems has been lobbying to return to the city's skies.

That said, we welcome City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's decision to hold a hearing on the company's proposal. It's time we gave them a firm "no."

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Mayor Catherine Pugh has not evinced much enthusiasm for the program, but neither has she ruled it out. She has said that if the company can muster a groundswell of community support, she will listen. Mr. Young isn't explicitly endorsing the idea either but says he wants more information, given that some in the community are convinced of its utility.

Indeed, Persistent Surveillance, which has tried to rebrand itself as the less creepy "Community Support Program," has lined up some passionate advocates who have experienced Baltimore's violence and are bullish about the technology's promise, including former City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. It has proven more difficult to say no to them than to the Ohio-based company's officials.

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City Councilman Brandon Scott, who chairs the public safety committee, says he is skeptical that the program is worth the cost. Company officials say they would fly for free for the first year (with costs covered by private donors) and thereafter for $1.6 million a year. If it could really reduce homicides and shootings by as much as 30 percent, as the company boasts, it would be well worth it. But there's reason to question whether that's likely. During the periods when the company was collecting images in 2016, Baltimore saw about 100 murders, and the company was able to provide the police department with information relevant to five of them. One of them resulted in a guilty plea, though it's not clear what role the surveillance played. One was later ruled a suicide, and a suspect was arrested in another, but the charges were dropped.

At its best, Persistent Surveillance doesn't solve crimes or catch killers. It can give police leads by tracking where people (or, more easily, cars) went after leaving a crime scene. The information can be cross-referenced with existing, fixed surveillance cameras (public or private), which provide much more detailed images, but ultimately, collecting the evidence that leads to arrest, conviction and imprisonment requires shoeleather police work and cooperative witnesses who are willing to testify in court. It's that last part that has been Baltimore's biggest barrier to putting bad guys in prison, and resolving that is going to be a slow and difficult process driven by the implementation of Baltimore's consent decree with the Department of Justice, not by quick fix new technology.

Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems believe his surveillance photos of the city could have other possibilities besides exposing crime in the city. It could possibly be used by private companies to see who's at fault in a car accident. (Baltimore Sun video)

Even if it is effective, the program presents concerns. The images are recorded, analyzed and stored by Persistent Surveillance, not the police or some other public agency. The company publicizes a privacy policy it has developed (supposedly after listening to input from the ACLU and other skeptics), but we would largely be in a position of having to trust the company to make sure all its employees follow the rules, and that the images are kept secure. Given the potential for the information to be misused — the FAQ section on the company's website inadvertently suggests some possibilities, like "Do you follow people from protests?" and "I think my boyfriend is cheating on me can you look to see if he is?" — how comfortable are we with that arrangement?

We'll give Persistent Surveillance this much — they're persistent. But they're not right for Baltimore. Let them try to prove their worth elsewhere.

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