Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Baltimore Police Defend Use of Small Airplane to Track, Fight Crime: High-flying cameras, funded by unnamed donor, help solve crimes but also draws criticism

The Wall Street Journal
Aug. 24, 2016 6:43 p.m. ET

BALTIMORE—The Baltimore Police Department on Wednesday defended its use of a newly disclosed airplane-mounted surveillance program, which is run by a private company and since January has employed high-powered cameras that can scan nearly half the city.

“This is a 21st Century investigative tool used to assist investigators in solving crimes,” police spokesman T.J. Smith said at a news conference, likening the airborne cameras to the more than 700 light-pole-mounted cameras around Baltimore. He said footage from the sky helped police arrest a man who is accused of shooting two elderly people in February.

The program, the existence of which was revealed Tuesday by Bloomberg Businessweek, has set off intense criticism from civil liberties advocates and the Maryland public defender’s office. “This is a pretty radical step towards constructing a surveillance society,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Smith pushed back on assertions that police kept the program secret. “It’s not a secret; we’re talking about it,” he said. Asked why it wasn’t publicized earlier, he said, “We would have talked about it publicly.”

The aerial footage is provided by an Ohio company called Persistent Surveillance Systems. Owner Ross McNutt said a small plane has flown about 300 hours during a trial for the city—100 hours in January and February and 200 hours in a recent two-month span. Mr. Smith said the department hasn’t decided whether to continue the program after the current phase ends in a few weeks.

A wealthy anonymous donor whom Mr. McNutt wouldn’t identify has footed the bill, and company analysts study the images at an office in Baltimore called the Community Support Program, Mr. McNutt said.

The company’s website says it provides “a high level view of the crime scene, the cars and the number of people who were there, where those cars came from and where they went to, and their actions while going to and from the crime scene.”

“We believe we contribute significantly to the safety and support of the citizens here in Baltimore,” Mr. McNutt said.

So far his team has compiled 102 investigative briefs after analysts looked at scenes of serious crimes like murders, shootings and rapes, and fed that information to detectives, he said. “Sometimes they are more successful than others, but I don’t have a firm number” on case outcomes, he said.

Mr. Smith said he didn’t have information on how many arrests resulted from the airplane footage. He emphasized that the cameras lack sufficient resolution to identify individual people on the ground.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she recently became aware of the program. “This technology is about public safety,” she said in a statement. “This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone. It’s about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city,”

She added: “I am committed to ensuring that we don’t violate any privacy laws as we use technology to our advantage in fighting and solving crime in the city of Baltimore.”

Paul DeWolfe, the public defender for Maryland, said his office wasn’t informed about the surveillance, which he said “violates every citizens’ right to privacy.”

“It is particularly troubling that the department continues to lack any transparency regarding its technology acquisitions and practices,” he said in a statement, noting a recent Justice Department report that described unconstitutional police practices in Baltimore.

Mr. Stanley of the ACLU said he was troubled by both the lack of disclosure and use of the program, which he said was like putting a GPS tracker on every city resident.

“Can it solve crimes? Yes, I’m sure it can,” he said. “If the government put cameras in everybody’s living rooms and bedrooms, that would solve crimes, too.”

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