The American Civil Liberties Union and its Maryland branch are suing the Baltimore Police Department over a controversial plan to fly surveillance planes over the city, the group announced Thursday.
The suit, filed Thursday in federal court, challenges the city’s surveillance contract, narrowly approved last week by the city’s Board of Estimates, which authorizes a pilot program to collect images of the city over a six-month period to help investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings.
Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, through their organization Arnold Ventures, are paying for three planes, their pilots, analysts and hangar space, as well as grants to help researchers study whether the program is having an impact on Baltimore’s violent crime rate. The city has had more than 300 homicides annually for the last five years.
The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the surveillance system is a threat to the right to privacy and free association under the First and Fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The technology would be the most "wide-reaching surveillance dragnet” ever used in an American city, said Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Center for Democracy, in a news release.
“If it’s allowed to move forward, it could become a chilling and all-seeing part of daily life all over the country," he said. "This technology is the equivalent to having a police officer follow you every time you leave the house. It presents a society-changing threat to everyone’s rights to privacy and free association, and we need to put a stop to it now.”
The group asked a federal judge for an injunction to block the program from operating, the ACLU said.
Asked about the lawsuit Thursday, Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said he was aware it was filed.
“We will follow the law and wait for the court date,” he said.
The lawsuit was filed on on behalf of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a grassroots think tank; Erricka Bridgeford, co-founder of the Baltimore Ceasefire 365 project; and Kevin James, a community organizer and hip-hop musician.
“The best way to reduce violence is through community building and healing strategies — not through military-grade surveillance programs," Bridgeford said. "Rather than investing time and energy in futuristic surveillance, the city of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department should invest in programs to address the root causes of violence.”
The ACLU objected last week as the Board of Estimates weighed the plan, chastising city officials for considering it during the new coronavirus outbreak. Baltimore residents, like those in the rest of Maryland, are under a stay-at-home order in response to the rapidly spreading virus.
“We’re going to start a study of this technology’s effectiveness when the entire city and state is on mandatory lockdown?” ACLU attorney David Rocah asked during the Board of Estimates meeting. “Virtually none of the data collected now would be usable.”
Harrison, who was publicly skeptical about the plan in the past, advocated last week for the planes, arguing that the pilot program is needed to determine whether the technology could help reduce crime.
Harrison said data from the planes will be stored for 45 days, unless it is needed for an investigation. The planes can’t be used for real-time surveillance, only to look back, and no one will be arrested solely based on images produced by the planes, he said.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund also has been critical of the plane plan, arguing it would do little to build public confidence in the police department and raises constitutional questions, particularly in relationship to the 14th Amendment, which prohibits discriminatory actions based on race.
Civil liberties advocates argued visual data from the planes would be coupled with video from the city’s network of surveillance cameras on the ground, which are disproportionately located in minority neighborhoods.
Harrison said the city’s cameras are located in neighborhoods with the most crime, which “coincidentally” may be in minority neighborhoods.
The Board of Estimates approved the plan by a 3-2 vote. Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young voted in favor of the planes, as did Matthew Garbark, acting director of public works, and Dana Moore, acting city solicitor. Both positions are appointed by Young, and typically follow the mayor’s lead with their votes.
Council President Brandon Scott and Comptroller Joan Pratt voted against the contract.
The planes can begin flying this month, according to the contract.
The surveillance technology was first tested in Baltimore in 2016 when a single plane, also funded by the Arnolds, was dispatched to fly 8,000 feet above Baltimore to record hundreds of hours of video. Police officials did not disclose the plan to the mayor or Baltimore City Council at the time.
Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.