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Police surveillance planes to monitor Baltimore next year

by REGINA GARCIA CANO The Associated Press | December 29, 2019 at 3:52 a.m.

BALTIMORE -- The city of Baltimore will be monitored by surveillance airplanes for up to six months next year under a pilot program announced Friday that is aimed at helping law enforcement investigate violent crime and that will effectively restart a tactic secretively used three years ago.

The flights, which civil liberties groups oppose, will start in May and gather footage during the hours when the city experiences high rates of crime. The announcement marks a reversal for Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who previously expressed skepticism over the use of the planes and described the idea as an "untested" crime-fighting strategy.

"We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime," Harrison said at a news conference. He said he believes they could prove to be "yet another tool" to fight the violence plaguing the city.

The three planes will fly simultaneously, covering about 90% of the city, Baltimore police spokesman Matt Jablow said. The resolution of the footage won't be sharp enough for officers to identify faces, but should help them track movement and action.

The testing will align with the city's historically most violent months and will be focused on homicides, shootings and robberies, including carjackings. Harrison said police will not have access to live feeds, and instead, officers will receive "evidence packages" of specific crimes that have already being reported.

Footage from the pilot program will not be used in cases of police misconduct.

Baltimore is experiencing one of its most violent years on record, with more than 330 homicides so far. That's up from 309 total in 2018. The city has also seen more than 1,310 armed and unarmed commercial robberies and carjackings. It wrapped up last year with 1,361 of those cases.

Harrison acknowledged the controversial history of the planes and promised a series of yet-to-be-scheduled public meetings to inform the community "on how the program will and will not be used going forward."

In 2016, under a different police commissioner, the department hoped to quietly gather crime scene information using the aerial surveillance tactic. Top city officials were unaware that Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems was trying out its technology over Baltimore until Bloomberg Businessweek revealed it.

Over months, the company captured roughly 300 hours of images. Analysts then zoomed in on crime scenes, moving backward and forward in time among the images to see suspects arriving and getting away. The footage was captured using a bank of cameras mounted inside a small Cessna airplane flown at roughly 8,000 feet above the city.

Ross McNutt, president and owner of the company as listed on its website, told The Associated Press the technology provided through the Community Support Program -- "helps solve otherwise unsolvable crimes," particularly homicides. He said it has a well-developed privacy program with external oversight.

"During the short test in 2016, in the equivalent of two weeks of flying, we watched five murders and 18 shootings and provided that information to investigators. We look forward to supporting the people of Baltimore in their efforts to reduce major crime and we look forward to doing so in a very open and transparent way" that protects people's rights, McNutt said.

City Solicitor Andre Davis on Friday said Baltimore's law department is "entirely comfortable" with the planned test, whose cost Harrison said will be covered by philanthropic funds, not tax dollars. He said he has been in contact with the foundation of Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold, who funded the 2016 tryout through a donation to the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit civic organization.

A Section on 12/29/2019

Print Headline: Police surveillance planes to monitor Baltimore next year

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