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Judge Clears Baltimore's Planned Aerial Surveillance Pilot Program

BALTIMORE (AP) — A federal judge on Friday cleared a planned pilot program by the Baltimore Police Department to consistently surveil the city for six months using cameras attached to airplanes.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett in Baltimore ruled against a grassroots think tank and area activists who asked him to keep the program from taking off, arguing that it violates their First and Fourth Amendment rights. At least one aircraft was expected to begin flights this month, but the department agreed to hold off until the judge ruled on the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction.

Under the six-month pilot program, up to three planes equipped with cameras will gather images of the city at a rate of one per second to help police investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. Weather permitting, the aircraft will fly up to 12 hours a day covering about 90 percent of the city.

The police department has defended the plan as an opportunity to test a crime-fighting tactic as violent crime has continued in Maryland's largest city, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Philanthropic funds will cover the cost of the program.

More than 300 people were killed in Baltimore in each of the past five years. Eighty-five people have been killed in 2020 as of Friday morning, a tie compared with the same period last year. The area has also tallied 170 nonfatal shootings this year, down 21 compared with the same time last year.

The technology was secretly tested in Baltimore in 2016. Residents and top city officials were unaware of the police-approved test until the media revealed it.

Earlier this month, the think tank and activists filed their federal lawsuit to stop another tryout. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing them. They argue the program infringes upon people's reasonable expectation of privacy regarding movement, results in indiscriminate searches without a warrant and impedes the right to gather freely.

Under an agreement between the police department and contractor Persistent Surveillance Systems, analysts will use the images gathered by the airplanes as well as data from city-operated street-level cameras, license plate readers and a gunshot detection system to identify crime suspects and their associates.

The Ohio-based contractor will operate the airplanes and employ the analysts.

The nonprofit of Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold will pay for the planes, their pilots, hangar space and analysts. The couple also paid for the first test.

(© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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