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Make Baltimore safer and ground the spy plane | COMMENTARY

Eric Melancon, (l) chief of staff for the Baltimore Police Department, left and Ross McNutt, founder of the Persistent Surveillance Systems, look over the plane that flies over Baltimore to help police solve crimes.
Eric Melancon, (l) chief of staff for the Baltimore Police Department, left and Ross McNutt, founder of the Persistent Surveillance Systems, look over the plane that flies over Baltimore to help police solve crimes. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

As the spy plane passed overhead for the twentieth time the other day — that is, the twentieth time that I happened to notice — I tried to figure out why it disturbed me each time. Beyond just the irritating mosquito-whine of the plane, why does it feel like there is something deeply wrong and troubling about it?

This is why. The spy plane repeatedly communicates one very clear, very negative message: Your police department sees itself as an occupying force and sees your neighborhood as occupied territory. Every day, our police department sends me that message, not once, not twice, but dozens of times. This surveillance technology was originally created in a war zone to control what was perceived as the hostile population of a city. Its deployment here carries that same mentality. We live now in a situation where every 8 minutes or so, for 12 hours a day, another insect-like drone delivers that damaging and inappropriate message again and again and again.

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Our city is looking for a completely different message from our police department, especially in light of the consent decree after the death of Freddie Gray and in the wake of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, where rogue police officers stole from and set up residents. What we want to hear is the police department communicating “we are here to work together with your community to make the neighborhood safe.” There are many ways to communicate that: a police officer out of the patrol car walking the block and interacting with people; a police officer using calm, professional language and demeanor to defuse a tense situation; a police officer identifying someone in need of assistance and calling in the right resources; police officers whose respectful approach has built enough credibility in the community that residents step forward with information to help solve a crime. Fortunately, we actually do have police officers who are trying to send that message every day.

But Baltimore can ill afford mixed messages from our police. The spy plane undercuts the police who are doing the hard work to rebuild relationships and re-earn the trust of Baltimore’s residents. The spy plane was advertised as a magic bullet to drive down crime rates, a claim that the record of the past year has proven to be manifestly untrue. As a resident of Baltimore City, I don’t want a shiny tech toy that sends a message of police distrust and domination. I want to support the police officers who are doing the work of creating a new relationship between residents and police. The spy plane is getting in the way of their work.

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So, whenever the spy plane buzzes me with its message of surveillance and occupation, I’ve decided to start responding. Every time I see and hear the spy plane — once, twice, 5, 10, 20 times a day — I’m going to email or text our mayor, City Council president, City Council representative and police commissioner with the following message:

"My police department just informed me that it sees itself as an occupying force and that my neighborhood is occupied territory. I support police officers who are working to rebuild trust and credibility. The spy plane undercuts their work. Please change that message. Make Baltimore safer. Ground the spy plane now. Thank you in advance for your attention to this urgent matter.”

For anyone who shares this sense of what is wrong with the spy plane, please send your own message to your elected officials each time you see or hear its buzz. Its time to end the occupation mentality and get on with the business of creating safe communities throughout Baltimore.

Michael Sarbanes (msarbanes@yahoo.com) was executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention from 1996 to 2000. He lives in the Irvington neighborhood in Baltimore City.

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