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Baltimore Police Respond To Report Of Secret Aerial Surveillance Program

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Since January, the city of Baltimore has been under intermittent surveillance from the sky, and the public was never told, according to a report out this week in Bloomberg Businessweek.

A small Cessna airplane equipped with cameras spent hours flying over the city, and feeding its footage back to huge hard drives, the report says.

The Baltimore Police Department held a press conference on the matter Wednesday afternoon, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake put out a statement around the same time.

"I was recently made aware of the Persistent Surveillance Systems Inc. work with our city," Rawlings-Blake wrote.

"The pilot program, funded by an anonymous donor, is cutting edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safer. My top priority, which I have continuously communicated to Commissioner Davis, has been to keep our city safe. His team sought opportunities to find new technology that works hand in hand with our robust Citiwatch program. This technology is about public safety. This isn't surveilling or tracking anyone. It's about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city."

The program is "not an unmanned drone or a secret surveillance program," Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith began the Wednesday press conference by saying.


"This is a 21st century investigative tool used to assist investigators in solving crimes. The wide area imagery system allows for the capability of seeing 32 square miles. This, effectively, is a mobile CitiWatch camera. What we gain with this is size, so we see a larger area than we would see with a CitiWatch camera, but what we lose is the clarity that we get from a CitiWatch camera, which is on the ground."

He credited the program with helping solve a crime involving a pair of elderly siblings being shot in Walbrook Junction in February.

The CitiWatch program is a voluntary registry that contains the location and owner information of privately owned surveillance systems—information that is valuable to the Baltimore Police Department in the event of a crime. There are 700 such cameras throughout the city.

"Years ago, when we embarked on our CitiWatch program, there were similar anxieties and that's understandable," Smith said. "We expect this technology to be used for other public safety concerns, like Silver Alerts, Amber Alerts, floods, sinkholes, fires, terrorist attacks, and more. It adheres to our CCTV policies. We currently know that there are existing technologies that are out there in the world and in place, like red light cameras, speed cameras, license plate readers, other CCTV and facial recognition. All of those programs received the same level of scrutiny. This is a 21st century technology that other large cities across the country are also testing."

Smith ended his initial remarks by saying  "the only people that should be concerned in the city of Baltimore are criminals."

When asked why the program was never disclosed to the public, Smith pointed out that it is not the department's policy to put out press announcements for new or changed CitiWatch cameras, and that it's not an official city program, but rather a trial program.

He also said the program "wasn't continuous from January 1st through today", but rather consisted of 100 hours of filming in the January and February, and 200 hours over the summer months.

There are a few more weeks left in the current phase of the program, but "we don't have a plan at this point to move forward beyond that," Smith said.

In a statement on Wednesday night, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said, "We do knot know yet if our examination of this technology will result in a recommendation to permanently pursue it, but promise a robust and inclusive community conversation in the event that we conclude it can improve public safety in Baltimore."

Ross McNutt, the president and CEO of Persistent Surveillance, was also on hand at the press conference.

"We believe that we contribute significantly to the safety and the support of the citizens here in Baltimore and we greatly appreciate the opportunity," he said.

"We do have the legal analysis that covers the program that we are no different than any other airborne law enforcement organization camera system. There are four Supreme Court level decisions that cover this, that deal with one out of Florida and one out of California, specifically, that were used to gather search warrants. One was in 1984 and one was in 1986."

Those documents have been reviewed with the State's Attorney's office, McNutt said.

Commissioner Davis says the program was made available to Baltimore through a private donation in an effort to seek ways to enhance public safety.

WJZ has learned that Texas billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura  donated the money to a non-profit Baltimore Community Foundation, saying in a statement, ""We invest in a wide array of criminal justice issues and policies, including strategies for improving the clearance rate of criminal cases. One such strategy is to use technology to assist police in early-stage investigations. To that end, we personally provided financial support for the aerial surveillance tool being piloted in Baltimore.  As a society, we should seek to understand whether these technologies yield significant benefits, while carefully weighing any such benefits against corresponding tradeoffs to privacy."

Many residents, including Councilman Brandon Scott are wondering why the public wasn't notified.

"Why in the world didn't we tell people about this," said Scott. In light of everything happening in the city, transparency is key with us moving forward."

Police agencies in Pennsylvania, California and Ohio have also tested the technology.

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