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When the cities cut surveillance, the Baltimore police were blown up

In August 2016 A Bloomberg report revealed a secret air surveillance program in Baltimore run by the city police department. In eight months, aircraft with cameras collected over 300 hours of footage used by police to investigate alleged crimes. Hardly anyone outside of the management of the police department and the provider of Persistent Surveillance Systems knew it.

The then Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis defended both the planes and the secrecy. The murder rate in the city skyrocketed, the overloaded police department responded to thousands of calls a day, and footage from the planes helped police locate suspects.

The planes were grounded amid backlash from local residents and civil rights groups demanding the program’s immediate suspension and details of the data collected by the city. Commissioner Davis was eventually fired after failing to contain the city’s homicide rate. His successor, Darryl De Sousa, resigned in a tax evasion scandal. The next year, Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned in a separate financial scandal.

Four years later, the planes were back in the air, but under different circumstances. In 2019, Ross McNutt, CEO of Persistent Surveillance Systems, tossed the city on restarting the program. By flying over 32 square miles of the city, the planes were able to monitor the most polluted areas of the city, where 80 percent of the city’s gun murders occurred. Fully funded by donors, McNutt set up the planes as an inexpensive but groundbreaking tool to curb the rising murder rate.

The new program, called Aerial Investigation Research (AIR), received public comment and received strong support from the city’s black and religious communities. The city’s Board of Estimates approved this in April with a 3-2 vote. The planes flew in May for a six-month pilot that ended in October.

The current Police Commissioner Michael Harrison supports the program. “If it doesn’t work, you have my promise that we will ground the planes,” Harrison said at the April Board of Estimates meeting.

“The problem with what happened in 2016 wasn’t that it was done in secret, but that it was done at all.”

David Rocah, Senior Attorney at ACLU Maryland

Some activists, including the ACLU, are still against the program. They say transparency is irrelevant as the planes are inherently invasive and unconstitutional. “The problem with what happened in 2016 wasn’t that it was done in secret, but that it was done at all,” said David Rocah, senior attorney for ACLU Maryland.

The resurfacing of the Baltimore air surveillance program comes in a moment of increasing police control. Local governments restrict police technology. City guides in San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston approved restrictions on police use of facial recognition as major vendors like Amazon and Microsoft imposed temporary moratoriums on the technology’s sale to police. California has passed two privacy laws in the past two years while Michigan voters advocated new rules for police access to suspicious data.

However, Baltimore’s rising murder rate marks the city as an outlier. Residents have long complained about a complicated cycle of violence in the city. Robust police responses can trigger violent setbacks, while passive approaches frustrate residents who feel ignored. The police commissioners’ revolving door has contributed to a lack of confidence in the police, frustrating the authorities, who complain that they cannot solve crimes without the help of potential witnesses. The same witnesses believe the police are powerless to protect them from retaliation. Meanwhile, the murder rises.

“I understand the fears people who live in Baltimore have because I live in Baltimore,” says Rocah. But he adds: “If that is a sufficient justification, the fourth amendment is completely irrelevant.”

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In April, the ACLU filed a complaint against the BPD on the grounds that the continuing unlawful nature of the program violated the fourth amendment’s protection against unfair searches. Since then, judges have ruled against the ACLU three times and continued the program.