By Ethan McLeod
Dec. 20, 2019
The Baltimore Police Department announced Friday it will return a controversial camera-equipped “spy plane” to the skies, as shootings and murders in the city are unrelenting heading into the new year.
“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” Commissioner Michael Harrison said at a press conference at BPD headquarters. He added that he has “decided to proceed with this pilot program because it could represent yet another tool in the toolbox to solve and deter violent crimes in our city.”
The plane — or planes, given the ability to substitute one aircraft for another amid refueling or maintenance — will begin flying around May 2020 and operate for four to six months. The technology by Persistent Surveillance Systems will record video from above, as it did when BPD flew the planes unbeknownst to the public in 2016, and provide footage to help Baltimore police detectives investigative past murders, shootings and armed robberies, including carjackings.
Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold have offered to fund the plane, which, per previous reports, costs $2.2 million per year to operate.
BPD is currently finalizing a memorandum of understanding with the technology’s Dayton-based provider.
Harrison stressed that live video feeds from the aircraft would remain inaccessible to police, and that Persistent Surveillance Systems would instead provide “evidence packages” for incidents that have already been reported.
He also said an independent third-party civilian auditing team would “ensure that we are following the program’s exact guidelines on privacy and appropriate use of the system.” After data is collected, he said, an independent group of research partners will assess the pilot program’s impact on police crime clearance rates and ability to solve and suppress violent crimes.
BPD and Persistent Surveillance Systems met with officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and the appointed consent decree monitoring team and found no legal obstacles to their pilot agreement, the police commissioner said. They’re now crafting a memorandum of understanding solidifying rules for privacy, operations and other areas.
“We are aware of no local law, state law, federal law — including federal constitutional law — that imposes any impediment on the pilot program that the commissioner has described,” City Solicitor Andre Davis said. “The law department is entirely comfortable with the program.”
Baltimore business, nonprofit and faith leaders have mounted a push to test out the technology. Greater Baltimore Committee President and CEO Donald Fry endorsed the idea in October, saying it would advocate for funding for the program. The Abell Foundation also provided a $40,000 grant to pay for a non-scientific poll to gauge public support for the program.
Fry said in a statement Friday that the plane can offer “a new investigative tool to address the unacceptable crime rate in the city.”
“The GBC commends Commissioner Harrison for his thoughtful and deliberative approach in developing a program that takes advantage of enhanced technology but is limited in scope and time to determine whether the technology is effective and if a longer term commitment is worthwhile,” Fry said.
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Source: Baltimore Business Journal