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Don’t call it a 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 is helping police to 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 is helping police to solve crimes. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

As the new executive director of the Community Support Program, derisively known as the entity that manages “the eye in the sky” or “the spy plane" in Baltimore, I bring a long track record of public service, advocating for progressive causes, and bridge building. The lessons that I’ve learned over the course of my career have often come from seemingly unlikely sources.

News of actor Chadwick Boseman’s passing, for example, hit me like a ton of bricks. The roles he played during his far-too-short life — from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to baseball great Jackie Robinson — were more than iconic, with enormous cultural significance; they were also sources of enormous pride. Our community and nation need more heroes with Black skin. After seeing “Black Panther,” his most known movie, I came to fully appreciate that Black people were not only in desperate need of superheroes, but also individuals who are able and willing to give of themselves for the greater good.

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Taking this new position reaffirmed my personal commitment to serving the people of the city that I love and cherish. The Community Support Program flies planes during the day which collect images that can be used by Baltimore City police detectives to help close cases, many of which might have otherwise gone unsolved. From just May 1 to Oct. 15, the Community Support Program worked with detectives on 169 investigations including 34 homicides, 35 non-fatal shootings, 85 armed robberies and 15 car jackings.

Based on the independent evaluation conducted by Rand Corporation, preliminary findings indicate that in homicides and non-fatal shooting cases where the Community Support Program has provided evidence packages are closed at nearly twice the rate of those not supported by the program. Over the past several months, the Aerial Investigative Research (AIR) Program technology used in the planes has become integrated into the toolbox of many dedicated Baltimore police detectives who work hard to bring to justice the perpetrators of Baltimore’s most violent criminal acts.

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It is not a spy plane. It is a program which strives to vindicate the innocent, identify the guilty and keep the system accountable. This evidence also helps bring closure for families of victims. As a Baltimore native, I am no stranger to the tragedy and trauma that senseless violence breeds. I know what it feels like to comfort a mother suffering from not only the loss of her child, but also from the sickening feeling that no one will ever be brought to justice for the murder. I have attended countless vigils, peace marches and community forums where the demands for change are near deafening. And I, like everyone else, am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Many areas of Baltimore City are like war zones. It should not be that way. We all have a right to go about our business in peace without having to worry that a stray bullet may find us or our loved ones — not just those who live in wealthy neighborhoods. No one should be afraid that when they leave their home, it might be for the last time. No parent should fear that a late-night phone call might bring news of their worst nightmare.

Unfortunately, there are outside forces trying to end this program. They are working overtime to frighten the public into believing that they are being spied on. This could not be further from the truth. The planes simply record crimes from above, which is not much different from the crimes recorded on the CitiWatch cameras found on poles throughout the city. Those cameras help monitor public spaces and deter criminal behavior, and so do ours. I sometimes wonder if these people really live here, because if they do, there is no way that they could honestly think that every citizen of Baltimore does not deserve the right to expect that absolutely everything is being done to keep them safe and protected.

Marshall C. Bell (mcbell@pss-1.com) is executive director of The Community Support Program.

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