Aerial surveillance is not the answer to Baltimore’s crime problem

Seventeen people were shot in Baltimore over the weekend — four of them fatally. One of the wounded is a 2-year-old child, who was shot in the stomach in what police are characterizing as an “act of road rage.”

That’s the reality in this city. So, we understand why 72% of Baltimore residents, desperate for an end to the violence, would tell a pollster they support aerial surveillance in the form of multiple planes flying overhead tracking people and vehicles — particularly when it’s described to them as the perfect solution to our problems: A rather leading poll question says the program could help solve crimes, would not be abused and would (initially) be paid for by a private donor.


What we don’t understand is why city and state leaders — in political, non-profit and business circles — have allowed, and in some cases encouraged, this company’s road show to continue for so long. It’s irresponsible and, frankly, irrational.

There is no evidence to support claims by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems that its spy planes could reduce violent crime by 30% in year one, much less subsequent years. One of their planes flew for 300 hours in 2016 — secretly, you may remember — over two periods of time in which there were 100 murders in Baltimore. How many of those did PSS solve? Definitively, none.


In fact, the company offered up information connected to just five of those homicides, and only one of those cases resulted in a conviction. We don’t even know if PSS helped that happen, but it’s a safe bet it did not, because company President Ross McNutt would surely tout it if he could. He’s been working sections of the city for years now, handing out hope in the form of a slick presentation.

We expect that from a businessman who stands to profit handsomely should the city approve his program. We also expect city leaders to do more than shrug their shoulders and let it continue without comment — especially when there is evidence that law enforcement in Baltimore has all too often abused its power at the expense of citizen’s civil rights.

There is simply no good reason for Baltimore to be this private company’s guinea pig in such a Big Brother-esque venture. Mr. McNutt promises he won’t track people improperly or sell the information he finds to others Facebook-style, and he swears that he can’t even make out the faces of individuals (people are just a few pixels on a screen, he likes to say). But he is apparently willing to follow and identify potential witnesses to crimes. Page 14 of a 51-page presentation states: “Many witnesses are observed at the location at the time [of a crime] and could be tracked if desired.” Outing reluctant witnesses is not what Baltimore needs to regain trust in its police department.

Mr. McNutt is accused of putting words in the mouths of City Council members, claiming he has more support than politicians have put forth in public, and he is now pitting Baltimore against St. Louis, Mo., to ramp up the stakes. He’s trying to sell the system there, which has had the effect of creating a faux sense of urgency here for Baltimore to grab it before it’s gone.

While St. Louis protestors registered their outrage over such “suspicionless tracking of everyone walking outside or driving” in that city last week, the lengthy PSS effort appears to be working in Maryland. The governor has endorsed the spy plane plan, as has the Abell Foundation and the public safety committee of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents business interests in the region.

We get that they’re frustrated; we’re frustrated. We all want the same thing: safe city streets, respected residents and secure business owners. But a spy plane — or three — is not the answer, and the risk of alienating people is too great to try such a program based on a (Cessna) wing and a prayer. The city’s police commissioner has recognized this; we wish others would as well.

There simply are no quick fixes to the city’s issues, which must be addressed with an unsatisfyingly slow combination of developing equitable education and employment opportunities throughout Baltimore and re-rooting the police department in solid principles of detective work.

That last bit is what led police to arrest and charge 33-year-old Javon Johnson Monday in the 2-year-old child’s tragic shooting, less than 72 hours after it occurred. And that’s the kind of effort we’d like to see the governor and others get behind, not some eye-in-the-sky fantasy.


It’s time for city leaders to wish Mr. McNutt well, and show him the door.