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Baltimore police commissioner says he hasn’t ruled out using surveillance plane in the future to fight crime

Baltimore's new police commissioner, Michael Harrison, said Tuesday he hasn't ruled out using a surveillance plane to help fight crime. Harrison is shown in this June 25, 2019, file photo, in the media room at city police headquarters.
Baltimore's new police commissioner, Michael Harrison, said Tuesday he hasn't ruled out using a surveillance plane to help fight crime. Harrison is shown in this June 25, 2019, file photo, in the media room at city police headquarters. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said Tuesday he hasn’t ruled out resurrecting a surveillance airplane program, which city police grounded in 2016 after the revelation of its use sparked an public outcry.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Harrison said he met Monday with Ross McNutt, founder of the Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, but has not made a decision about the plane’s future.

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“I met with them. They gave an excellent presentation and there is no decision,” Harrison said. “There is some work to be done. ... We listened to them. They gave a presentation and nobody is ready to make a decision.”

Persistent Surveillance Systems conducted 300 hours of surveillance in 2016 in Baltimore as part of a pilot program. The Cessna plane the company flew with police permission could record footage of 32 square miles of the city at any given moment.

But the program had not been publicly disclosed, and its revelation sparked an uproar that prompted police to end the city’s use of the system.

Harrison’s comments appeared to leave the door ajar for the plane’s return.

A day earlier, police spokesman Matt Jablow said the commissioner had no interest in reviving the plane program.

On Tuesday, Jablow said again Harrison isn’t sold on the idea.

“Commissioner Harrison simply isn’t convinced at this point that it’s a good idea, for operational reasons and in terms of rebuilding BPD’s relationship with the community,” Jablow said.

Still, Harrison’s lack of a categorical denial encouraged McNutt and supporters of the plane, who have been trying for years to get the city to approve flying it again over Baltimore. They believe aerial surveillance is needed to deter crime in a city where more than 300 people have died from homicide each of the last four years.

“We are grateful for the commission’s time,” McNutt said Tuesday. “We believe we have a great system that can save lives. We’d like to come back because we think we can make a big difference. We think Baltimore can be the example for the country."

The previous arrangement never appeared before the city’s spending board because private donations, handled by the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation, paid for the operation. McNutt said the plane could resume flying for three years, without cost to the city, thanks to donations. He said also donors are willing to pay for multiple planes to perform surveillance. After that, the city would need to pay for the program.

Former Democratic City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, who has been advocating for the plane’s return, said she was encouraged by the commissioner’s openness and wants to have town halls across the city so residents can hear about the surveillance program.

“I was hopeful yesterday’s meeting would lead to an open mind,” Spector said.

“They gave a presentation and nobody is ready to make a decision.”


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Advocates for civil liberties objected, saying the plane would turn Baltimore into an authoritarian-style surveillance state.

“This was a terrible idea when Ross McNutt first hatched it. It was a terrible idea when it was first disclosed. It was a terrible idea when [former Mayor] Catherine Pugh was open to it. And it’s a terrible idea now,” said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “It’s time for Ross McNutt to move on and stop trying to resurrect this totalitarian surveillance society. The way to make Baltimore safer is not to put every resident of Baltimore under permanent police surveillance every time they leave the house.”

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When the 2016 flights became widely known, then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis defended them. He likened the technology to an expansion of CitiWatch cameras, which are monitored video cameras mounted around the city. The department said the plane helped officers make arrests in several shootings.

A spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he will defer to Harrison about the plane’s future.

“The mayor will support whatever the police commissioner decides,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young.

Democratic City Council President Brandon Scott said the council has no authority over whether police authorize aerial surveillance.

“The council can’t block it,” Scott said. “The only two people who will make this decision are the mayor and the police commissioner.”

However, Scott questioned the plane’s effectiveness as a crime-fighting tool. He said the plane was only useful in a small number of cases when it flew in 2016.

“We know we’re in a public safety crisis,” Scott said. “The data doesn’t bear out that there is crime reduction from this technology. We should be focused on strategies that have an impact on crime without all the negatives associated with this plane.”

Young is to meet Friday with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to discuss crime-fighting strategies in Baltimore.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor would consider supporting the surveillance plane if it is effective in decreasing crime.

“We would consider supporting any operation that would have a real impact on violent crime," Ricci said. "The governor looks forward to meeting with the Mayor and the Commissioner on Friday to discuss getting violent shooters off the streets.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

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