BBJ: Aerial surveillance planes to begin flying over Baltimore Friday

By Ethan McLeod 

April 30, 2020 

Camera-equipped surveillance planes will take to the Baltimore skies May 1, kicking off a six-month pilot program testing the technology’s ability to help fight crime.

Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems is operating the planes, which will capture low-quality images from 8,000 to 10,000 feet for at least 40 hours per week in an effort to aid police in investigations of homicides, shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. The planes’ territory will cover 32 square miles. PSS will store the images and send the police department “evidence packages” to help with investigations, rather than operating the planes to assist with real-time policing of violent crimes.

After a week’s delay, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates on April 1 approved the agreement for the $3.7 million Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) program being paid for by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold.

The ACLU of Maryland had vehemently opposed the idea and attempted to stop the pilot from proceeding by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on April 9. The civil rights organization argued the program will violate city residents’ First and Fourth Amendment rights and “would be the most wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an American city,” given that Baltimore is the first major U.S. urban area to test the technology.

A judge ruled that the plan does not violate Baltimoreans’ constitutional rights, and wrote that images “will only depict individuals as minuscule dots moving about a city landscape.” The ACLU has appealed the ruling, but police are proceeding with the launch.

A number of Baltimore business leaders, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, have pushed for the surveillance program as a solution to reduce violent crime that has hampered Baltimore’s “vibrancy and economic potential.”

“If it needs to be tried somewhere, why not Baltimore?” Donald Fry, CEO of the GBC, told the Business Journal last October.

Police noted independent research partners — that includes Morgan State University, New York University, the University of Baltimore and the RAND Corp — will evaluate the 180-day program’s effectiveness and ability to protect data. The department also said independent civilian auditors “will ensure that the program is only being used for its intended purpose,” and that any data not packaged into evidence for police will be stored for up to 45 days.

To read the full story, visit the Baltimore Business Journal’s website.

Source: Baltimore Business Journal