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Spy plane not likely to fly over Baltimore again, mayor says

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott talks about his plans to fight crime in the city.

Ask Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott if you can expect to see the surveillance plane that circled the city for six months continue to fly, and he won’t hesitate with his reply.

“No,” Scott said firmly during an interview in his office last week. The city’s newly installed mayor looked expectantly at a reporter for a moment as if he planned to offer no further explanation.

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“Most of Baltimore’s violence happens at night,” he continued. “The plane doesn’t work at night. And if you look at where we are with violence right now after having the plane, one would find it very hard to have a reason to continue it.”

That stance — decisive, but not shocking given Scott’s vote against the plane’s trial as council president earlier this year — came as he sat down with a reporter for The Baltimore Sun to discuss his plans for the coming term.

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Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall. December 24, 2020
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall. December 24, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The pilot aerial surveillance program most recently operated from May through October. The American Civil Liberties Union has sought to block the plane’s use, citing privacy concerns. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided this month to reconsider the case, though the legal wrangling appears to have bigger implications for other cities given Scott’s position.

Scott, a Democrat, said the plane is ineffective when paired with Baltimore’s existing surveillance technology. The plane’s footage was to be used in combination with closed-circuit cameras on the ground and license plate readers, he said, but he believes the city hasn’t invested to the point where that would pay off. Cameras are missing or outdated in certain places, while license plate readers are not properly deployed.

“Getting the plane before those technologies are either fully up and operational … is like buying new tires for a car with no engine,” he said.

As a candidate for mayor, Scott was noncommittal about whether he planned to keep Police Commissioner Michael Harrison in his post, but he said in the interview the pair have a “great working relationship.” Scott praised Harrison’s efforts to reform the department, saying he’s seen progress “in the right direction.”

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But Scott also said he expects to hold Harrison and the department “accountable.” He said that accountability will be driven by data tracking the most violent offenders, violent neighborhoods and the department’s success in getting guns off the streets,

Asked how he would keep a data-driven approach from turning into quotas, Scott said his strategy is about quality of arrests, not quantity.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall. December 24, 2020
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall. December 24, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

“Going out there and doing what was done before and snatching up anybody who looks like me, as was done before, has never reduced crime and was always wrong,” said the mayor, who is Black and 36 years old.

“It’s about solely focusing in on those folks who are the trigger pullers, who we know are ordering hits on people, who we know don’t care if it’s a woman, child, senior citizen. Those are the people who we have to focus on.”

Scott is also planning a data-driven approach to his pledge to govern with equity. Under the direction of Dana Moore, who Scott has nominated to shift from acting city solicitor to the city’s first chief equity officer, Scott said he envisions the development of equity score cards to assess how agencies across the city are doing, from hiring to delivering basic city services in a more equitable fashion. Scott said he expects to make the resulting data publicly available.

“It’s about making sure neighborhoods like Cherry Hill, like Park Heights, like Madison get the services they need, but also thinking about how they’ve been denied capital investment. Thinking about how the city’s capital budget has only really been spent in wealthy, white neighborhoods,” he said.

“I’m not in a four-year term going to reverse all of Baltimore’s inequities. But somewhere, someone has to start a foundation,” he added.

Moore’s nomination to lead the equity efforts isn’t the only major staffing move Scott has made in his first weeks in office. He’s put forward Christopher J. Shorter’s nomination for the city’s new administrator position and tapped Jim Shea, his former running mate on a 2018 Democratic gubernatorial ticket, as city solicitor. Shea is chairman emeritus of the Venable law firm in Baltimore.

Shea’s selection raised eyebrows among some as he, a white man, would replace Moore, the city’s first female solicitor. Scott said the move was about assembling the best possible team.

“We know Jim is a heck of a lawyer, one of the most revered lawyers or feared lawyers in the state and city, depending on what side of the bench you were sitting on,” he said. “It’s about putting your best people in place, and also knowing what Jim ultimately wants is to be in that position, build the office up so he can leave it to someone young, someone African American, a woman who can take that position.”

Scott’s cabinet nominations will face confirmation hearings before City Council in the new year.

That’s also when he’ll have his first formal meeting with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Scott said he plans to address public safety in Baltimore. Hogan will hear from a mayor who understands the intricacies of public safety policy from his time on council and as a council staffer, Scott said.

Scott said the difference in party affiliation between he and the governor means little to him, but he also said he wouldn’t hesitate to tell Hogan if he’s wrong. In the past, Hogan has made some “shortsighted” and “misinformed” decisions about the city, Scott said, citing the governor’s decision to cancel the construction of the Red Line, a long-planned east-west light rail line.

“I don’t care who you are, I will not allow anyone to ignore Baltimore, or not treat Baltimore with the respect it deserves,” Scott said.

“My hope is I’m able to lead in a different way and give him the always unbiased truth and facts, and show him that leadership in Baltimore can move in the right direction,” Scott said.

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