Is Crime Reduction Worth Aerial Surveillance? Baltimore Board Says Yes

The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the plan to allow planes to fly over Baltimore 40 hours a week, collecting aerial images for criminal investigations

aerial view of Baltimore
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Baltimore officials determined to reduce violent crime have approved an eyes-in-the-sky program that uses surveillance planes to create a visual record of everything that can be seen in the streets below.

Despite opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and concerns that such pervasive monitoring could violate people's rights, the city's Board of Estimates voted 3-2 to on Wednesday to approve the privately-funded contract with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, The Baltimore Sun reported.

The six-month pilot program will use three planes to collect images of the city to help investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings.

The planes, their pilots, analysts and hangar space will be funded by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures. The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week.

The deal also pays for grants to enable independent researchers to study whether the program has an impact on Baltimore’s violent crime rate. The city has recorded more than 300 homicides yearly for the last five years.

David Rocah, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said it was “absurd” for the board to consider the plan during the COVID-19 outbreak. Maryland has been under a stay-at-home order since Monday in response to the virus. The board meeting was conducted via conference call.

Rocah also argued the surveillance planes would “supercharge” the impact of the city’s existing camera network, which is not “distributed in Baltimore in a racially neutral way.”

“They are overwhelmingly located in Baltimore’s black and brown neighborhoods,” he said. “The racial impact of this technology is significant.”

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said the existing network was put in place where crime rates are highest. The airborne surveillance technology is different, and a pilot is needed to determine whether it can help reduce the city’s crime rate.

“I fully appreciate that the opponents of this program ... have fundamental and philosophical beliefs against this kind of technology,” Harrison said. “These differing viewpoints are not solely isolated to this claim and extend to many other tools BPD uses every day.”

Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, voting in favor, spoke only once during the debate, saying, “I stand behind my commissioner.”

The Board of Estimates is comprised of the city's mayor, council president, comptroller, solicitor and public works director.

Council President Brandon Scott, who voted against the plan, questioned whether the technology was useful in solving homicides or robberies during an earlier trial in 2016 without the input of Baltimore City Council members or the mayor.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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