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Baltimore Police Announce Surveillance Plane Pilot Program To Help Deter, Solve Crimes

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Baltimore's police commissioner announced three surveillance planes will be flying over the city again in a new pilot program starting in May 2020 to test whether they can cut down on violence. The planes will take video of 90 percent of the city.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison made the announcement Friday during a press conference.

The last time the controversial aircraft flew was in 2016 when they were launched in secret. 

Then as now, Texas billionaire philanthropists John and Laura Arnold will cover the cost of the program at no taxpayer expense.

Harrison said the planes will fly for four to six months.

"We will be the first American city to use this technology in an effort to deter violent crime," Harrison said. "It is important we are transparent about how the program will and will not be used going forward."

He told WJZ there will be no live streaming and officers would not use the planes to track offenders in real-time during the pilot program. 


The commissioner said he has doubts the planes will cut crime, but he shifted course to give them a chance. He said Mayor Jack Young "did not push me toward this decision."


The aircraft will only be used to help with murder, shooting and carjacking cases for now. The commissioner did not say why other cases involving other serious crimes like rape and police misconduct were not part of the pilot program. Harrison said if the test is successful, the mission for the planes could expand.


The private company operating the three planes, Persistent Surveillance Systems, will have a written agreement with the city.


Ross McNutt is the president of the company. He tells WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren people are only identifiable as moving dots in the video.


"We limit the resolution to one pixel per person so you can't see who people are—what race, what sex," McNutt said. "The most important thing we can do is live within those rules that were set up, and if we don't, we'll be asked to leave."


McNutt showed us how people look like moving dots from the video images. He said police can track them by looking at CitiWatch and other cameras with better resolution on the ground.


During the pilot program, officers will not have direct access to the videos and will instead be given pre-packaged reports of information on cases.


McNutt feels the aircraft will reduce killings in Baltimore.


"Our goal is to save as many lives as possible. It's been five long years with high murder rates and our hope is we can reduce those numbers drastically."

The ACLU believes the surveillance is unconstitutional.


"We are putting everybody in Baltimore under permanent surveillance all the time, every time they walk out the door," said ACLU attorney David Rocah. "If the police did that in real life and followed us, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that we would accept it."

He said it is too early to decide whether the ACLU will take any legal action.


"That Baltimore is facilitating this is disturbing and shocking and is a potential step toward creating a permanent surveillance state in Baltimore."

Remember The Surveillance Plane That Flew Over Baltimore? It Could Fly Again

Despite police saying there will be independent, civilian oversight of the planes, the ACLU claims the private company can do whatever they want with the information they collect and will not be beholden to it. 


City solicitor Andre Davis said the law department was comfortable that the planes are legal.


"The city solicitor is grossly mistaken," Rocah said.

There will be several public meetings before the planes are placed in service. "The demonstrated community support was key to bringing them back," McNutt said.


Several city and state officials said they agreed with Harrison's move.

"I fully support Commissioner Michael Harrison as he explores additional resources to aid the Baltimore Police Department in its efforts to reduce crime in our city," said Mayor Jack Young. "At my direction, Commissioner Harrison consulted with the Department of Justice prior to moving forward with an exploratory phase. Any efforts we pursue have to comply with our federal Consent Decree. Reducing crime, most importantly violent crime, remains a top priority of mine. The process the Commissioner has outlined is transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions."

"The governor strongly supports today's announcement, after having urged city leaders to immediately implement the surveillance plane program. Earlier this year, at the governor's direction, ten Maryland State Police helicopter crews began conducting tactical fights over the city on an ongoing daily basis, providing additional support to police officers on the ground," the governor's office said in a statement. "The administration will continue to work with city leaders to use every tool and resource at our disposal to bring violent criminals to justice."

But Council President Brandon Scott said he does not believe the program will help solve crimes. In part, he said:

"Gun violence is out of control in our city and we are all looking for solutions that can save lives. This is why our city needs a comprehensive, coordinated approach to public safety.

Sadly, the City of Baltimore does not have one. When you don't have a plan, you reach for boxing rings. You hope for cold weather. You say you'll put a surveillance plane up in the sky that does not work.

We need solutions that work, and Commissioner Harrison has told the City Council multiple times this year, as recently as October, that there is no evidence the surveillance plane is an effective crime-fighting tool. BPD recently testified that, in the time the surveillance plane was secretly used in Baltimore, it yielded zero pieces of evidence that could be used to fight crime."

Mayor candidate and former Baltimore city spokesman T.J. Smith said he's happy a decision has been made, but that it doesn't help the more than 330 homicide victims this year.

"There have been 85 murders in the past three months and this year alone, there have been over 1,000 robberies and carjackings. This decision feels like that fierce urgency of now that we all expect from leadership," Smith said in part. "It should've existed back in October, but the decision paralysis in City Hall has crippled us from thinking outside of the box and using technology that could help Baltimore become a safer city."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland said the aerial surveillance "will impact the privacy rights of black and brown residents for generations to come."

"The surveillance plane means putting every resident of Baltimore under permanent surveillance, creating a video record of everywhere that everyone goes every time they walk outside. If the police did that in real life, in person on our streets, we would never accept it," the ACLU said in a statement.

Everyone in Baltimore is concerned about violent crime, but the desire to address that concern cannot be sufficient to ignore the other issues that this surveillance plan raises. Any decision to take such a drastic step, with such long-term impacts, should be made by an elected body that is accountable to the people who elect them, not by the Police Commissioner, or by private funders hoping to use Baltimore as a test site," the ACLU added.

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