Baltimore Police’ lawyers: Surveillance planes should fly

Regina Garcia Cano
Associated Press

Lawyers for the Baltimore Police Department told a federal judge on Tuesday that plans for camera-equipped planes to conduct aerial surveillance of the city should proceed, saying the crime-fighting tactic is constitutional despite the objections of civil liberties advocates.

The comments from the city’s lawyers came in a preliminary injunction hearing involving a recent lawsuit filed by a grassroots think tank and two area activists who argued that the planned surveillance pilot program violates people’s First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announces support for a pilot program that uses surveillance planes over the city to combat crime on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, in Baltimore.

At least one aircraft was expected to begin flights this month, but the department agreed to hold off until the court rules on the plaintiffs’ motion.

The lawyers for police said the city’s high-flying surveillance plan will provide law enforcement with another tool to tackle the city’s longstanding violent crime, which even the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been unable to suppress.

“Violent crime continues in Baltimore. We would have expected it to go way down given the orders that we are all living under, and that has not happened,” said Dana Moore, acting city solicitor.

Addressing a remotely conducted hearing because of social distancing orders, she added: “The community at large is crying out for solutions … They want us to take new and different and constitutional solutions that will make the city safe.”

Under the six-month pilot program, up to three planes will collect images of the city at a rate of one per second to help investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. Weather permitting, Moore said, the aircraft will fly up to 12 hours a day.

About 90 percent of the city is expected to be covered by the technology. Analysts will then use those images as well as data from city-operated street-level cameras, license plate readers and a gunshot detection system to identify crime suspects and their associates.

Maryland’s largest city has tallied more than 300 homicides in each of the past five years, even setting a per capita record in 2019. As of Tuesday morning, 82 people have been killed in 2020, or one more compared with the same period last year.

The city has also recorded 163 non-fatal shootings this year, down 24 compared with the same time last year.

The judge is expected to rule by Friday.

The civil complaint was filed earlier this month in federal court in Baltimore. It argues the program infringes upon people’s reasonable expectation of privacy regarding movement, results in indiscriminate searches without a warrant and impedes the right to gather freely.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing the plaintiffs, including the group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

“There are unquestionably many weighty considerations here,” ACLU attorney Ashley Gorski said during the hearing.

While Groski said the police department’s objective of reducing crime is commendable, the agency “cannnot pursue an unconstitutional policy in the service” of its objective.

Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Technologies will operate the airplanes and employ the analysts.

The nonprofit of Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold will pay for the planes, their pilots, hangar space and analysts. They also funded the 2016 secret tryout of the same technology in Baltimore. Top city officials were unaware of the police-approved test until the media revealed it.