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Crime & Justiceby Louis Krauss and Fern Shen11:53 amFeb 5, 20210

Baltimore’s “spy plane” is grounded, leaving some legal issues up in the air

Previously pitched as a high-tech tool to fight crime, the aerial surveillance program is ending, although some data is being retained and a federal court case looms.

Above: One of the surveillance Cessnas that flew over the city as part of the Baltimore Police Department’s Aerial Investigations Research program. (Louis Krauss)

Denounced by civil liberties lawyers as Orwellian, cursed by residents as a noise nuisance and mocked by a parody Twitter account, the surveillance plane program even drew the skepticism of Baltimore’s top cop.

The BPD agreed to support the flights “only to allow the data to inform us of whether or not the program will work,” Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said last April.

“Not because we have any belief that it will work,” Harrison hastened to add.

But then-Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, arguing it might combat the city’s relentlessly high homicide rate, persisted in pushing for the camera-mounted Cessna flight program, despite the legal challenges, community opposition and high-level doubts.

On Wednesday, the “spy plane” program came to an end, as the Board of Estimates terminated its professional services agreement with a Midwest company whose six-month pilot phase had ended in October.

The decision was good news for Baltimore’s communities of color, said Brett Max Kaufman, a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued in its 2020 federal lawsuit that minorities were being disproportionately targeted by the program.

“Baltimore’s termination of its unconstitutional spy plane program is a hard-fought victory for all Baltimoreans, especially for the Black leaders who challenged this,” Kaufman wrote in a statement.

Kaufman called the decision “a long-overdue recognition that this kind of all-seeing surveillance technology has no place in our cities.”

Opposed by Scott

A year ago, the program had received Board of Estimates approval on a 3-2 vote, with Comptroller Joan Pratt and then-Council President Brandon Scott casting “no” votes. This week, all the members of the spending board voted in opposition.

Scott, now mayor, says his position hasn’t wavered.

“This plane – especially right now in the midst of a global public health emergency, without true public input and dialogue – was not and is not a smart move for our city,” he said late last year in a Reddit forum held before he took office.

Scott and others questioned the effectiveness of a crime-solving program whose planes would only circle the city during daylight hours.

“If we care about saving lives, we have no time to be distracted by questionable solutions,” Scott told the Redditors.

The Ohio-based company behind the flights, Persistent Surveillance Systems, first surfaced in Baltimore in 2016 in a cloud of bad press, when a Bloomberg Businessweek report revealed it had been secretly flying over the city, collecting footage.

The company had more success with its second Baltimore effort, the six-month Aerial Investigations Research (AIR) pilot program, promoted publicly this time and funded privately by wealthy Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold.

Inconclusive Results

An independent study of AIR by the nonprofit RAND Corp., released last month, showed some positive results, but the authors cautioned that their findings were inconclusive.

AIR’s stated goal was to reduce the number of homicides, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. The study found a 24% clearance rate for cases using evidence from the planes – 7 percentage points higher than cases without plane footage.

The planes filmed the city for 9.1 hours per day on average between July and October, resulting in 11 additional serious crimes being solved.

But the authors noted that the program was never fully implemented. Although three planes were supposed to have been used simultaneously, the third was never included. And they said a number of factors complicated their data.

“This crude comparison of rates is misleading because there are systematic differences between the types of cases for which [aerial video] evidence is available and those for which it is not,” they wrote.

“An experiment that shreds our rights without a warrant or any involvement from a court”  – Kevin James, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit.

A harsher assessment of the program was offered recently by Baltimore’s Kevin James in an op-ed  published in St. Louis, where a similar aerial surveillance program has been proposed.

“This program puts us and our entire communities under suspicion of being criminals, subjecting us to an ‘experiment’ that shreds our rights without a warrant or any involvement from a court,” wrote James, a hip hop artist, community organizer and one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit.

“On top of all that, it makes way too much noise,” wrote James, describing the planes as “constantly buzzing above our heads whenever we try to take a walk or get some air to relieve the stress of living during a deadly pandemic.”

Court Battle

While the surveillance program’s contract was canceled, the city’s plan to retain 15% of the data gathered for ongoing investigations, rather than destroy it all, has raised lingering concerns.

Also pending is the fate of the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city over the program.

The ACLU wants to go forward with the court case in hopes that the spy plane program can be declared unconstitutional.

A federal judge ruled against the ACLU, and a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in November.

Now the Appeals Court has agreed rehear the case “en banc” or with all judges present. Oral arguments are set for March 8.

The city intends to argue that because the contract has now been terminated, the case is moot and should not go forward, City Solicitor Jim Shea has said.

The ACLU plans to oppose that motion and call for the case to be heard by the court and the spy plane program be found unconstitutional.

David Rocah, an ACLU staff attorney, described Shea’s comments as “in part a gambit to avoid further judicial review of the program.”

In a statement following the BOE vote, Rocah added, “The law is clear that the city can’t intentionally duck accountability by suddenly bailing on its years-long defense of this technology on the eve of next month’s appeals court hearing.”

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