BBJ: City panel approves ‘spy plane’ agreement, allowing surveillance planes over Baltimore

By Ethan McLeod and Carley Milligan 
April 1, 2020 

After much discussion, a panel of city leaders and top bureaucrats on April 1 approved an agreement between the Baltimore Police Department and Dayton, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems that will allow the company to fly several camera-equipped surveillance planes over Baltimore.

The Board of Estimates voted 3-2 to approve the memorandum of understanding. For a second straight week, Council President Brandon Scott asked to table the vote, saying the panel should wait until Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order due to the pandemic is lifted. Comptroller Joan Pratt, who voiced skepticism about the surveillance program during the meeting, supported his motion.

Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and his two appointed members of the board, Acting Public Works Director Matthew Garbark and City Solicitor Dana Moore, rejected the move to defer again, and the trio then voted to approve the MOU.

The newly approved agreement launches a six-month pilot project allowing BPD to use photos captured by the planes from 8,000 to 10,000 feet above the city for investigations of homicides, shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. The cost of the half-year program is $3.7 million — above the originally proposed $2.2 million — and is being funded by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold.

The planes cover 32 square miles of the city, and the company will collect the images and send the police department briefings with the images for any ongoing investigations. Police have previously stressed that the planes will not be used for real-time surveillance but rather investigations of crimes that have already happened. Any data not used for evidence packages sent to police will be destroyed after 45 days under the agreement.

The Abell Foundation also plans to provide funding for a firm to verify the photos are used only “for limited purposes intended under the pilot program,” according to the document.

Baltimore business leaders have vehemently endorsed the program as another tool to help fight crime in a city plagued by violence. Last fall, the Greater Baltimore Committee called for the pilot program to be implemented, with CEO Don Fry telling the BBJ in an interview, “If it needs to be tried somewhere, why not Baltimore? Particularly recognizing the challenges we have had in stopping violent crime.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison responded that he did not want to rush to launch it, noting “it has never been tried in an American city” and calling it “an experiment.”

Roughly two months later, Harrison announced the pilot program, saying “it could represent yet another tool in the toolbox to solve and deter violent crimes in our city.” The MOU was still being finalized at that point.

The planes are now set to begin flying this month, police have said.

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

Source: Baltimore Business Journal