BBJ: Baltimore officials cut ties with controversial surveillance plane operator

By Ethan McLeod
February 3, 2020

Months after the end of a controversial aerial surveillance program that was pitched as a way to help tackle violent crime in Baltimore, a panel of city officials voted Feb. 3rd to prematurely end an agreement with the Ohio-based operator.

The 5-0 vote from the Board of Estimates terminated a memorandum of understanding with Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) that was technically set to run through March. The planes — three of them, in shifts — stopped surveilling a 32-square-mile area of Baltimore at the end of October following a six-month “Aerial Investigations Research” (AIR) pilot agreement between PSS and the Baltimore Police Department.

Mayor Brandon Scott, who during the spring had objected — alongside the ACLU and a number of local residents — to the program’s adoption, had already said upon taking office in December that he would not seek to renew the agreement. This marked the second try for the technology in Baltimore, which under previous department leadership was provided a test run in city skies for months in 2016, unbeknownst to the public.

Council President Nick Mosby questioned why the BPD wished to end the agreement early when it is already set to expire at the end of next month. Lisa Walden, chief legal counsel for the department, said letting it continue would be “less transparent” than ending it early.

Asked by Comptroller Bill Henry about what will happen with collected data, Walden said about 15% will be retained for criminal investigations while the rest, working with PSS, will be destroyed.

It remains unclear how effective the pilot program actually was. Researchers from the nonprofit RAND Corp. released a report last week that said police were able to solve 24% to 30% of crimes — specifically homicides, shootings, carjackings and armed robberies — when assisted by evidence collected by the planes, compared with 16% to 22% of crimes without that assistance.

The University of Baltimore conducted its own public opinion research about aerial surveillance in the city, determining in a survey of 850 residents that a little more than half supported it. New York University’s Policing Project found in an audit that the program could infringe on the public’s civil rights, and Morgan State University researchers are conducting a separate study funded by the Abell Foundation.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents the city’s business interests, had pushed for using the technology as another tool to fight crime that has long hampered economic development.

The organization’s president, Donald Fry, said in a statement Feb. 3rd, that “given Mayor Scott’s objection to the program, only preliminary findings as to the program’s effectiveness over a limited period of time without the program being fully operational, and the announcement of a withdrawal of funding from the Arnold Foundation it is not surprising that the contract was terminated.

“Public safety remains the top priority of the business community, its citizens and elected officials,” Fry said. “The Greater Baltimore Committee continues to advocate and urge the Mayor and the Baltimore Police Department to use every tool and resource available to break the cycle of violent crime in the City of Baltimore.”

To read the complete story, visit the Baltimore Business Journal website.

Source: Baltimore Business Journal