Police commissioner speaks out about controversial surveillance program

Posted at 7:12 PM, Aug 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-26 17:22:12-04

On and off since January, a manned Cessna equipped with cameras has been watching over Baltimore in 32 square mile swaths in five hour clips, monitoring a city which had no idea this surveillance even existed until earlier this week.

It was a fumbled reveal making the Baltimore Police Department the target of some loud critics saying that at the very least, the police weren’t being transparent.

“I think over time, and I have been the commissioner now for well over a year, I think people will judge our transparency by a number of different things and what we want to do is anything we can do within the law to protect this community," Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said, "When we had an opportunity to merely test a new technology, we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity."

That opportunity came in the form of an anonymous donation through the Baltimore Community Foundation.
It is enough money for the first 100 flight hours over the winter and 200 more from June through the next few weeks.

Follow Brian Kuebler on Twitter @BrianfromABC2.


The plan police say was to see if this technology was useful, then approach the public with how an 8,000 foot view can help detectives solve violent crime in a city where 80 percent of its murders happen outside.

"It was an opportunity to use non tax payer funds to test this technology before we decided whether or not it would work for Baltimore and we still haven't come to that conclusion yet, but we do know as a matter of fact that that technology has solved a murder, and several nonfatal shootings," Davis said.

RELATED: Baltimore aerial surveillance program leads to murder arrest

The commissioner likens the surveillance program to the city crime watch cameras, just higher up and mobile.

While not exactly the same because of the scope of the pictures taken from that altitude, Davis said the quality is not clear enough to make out detail therefore nixing privacy concerns.Still, he insists he is not tone deaf to the concerns of a technology like this or the when his department disclosed it.

“I understand that Brian and we wanted to make sure it was something that worked for us first," Davis said. "And to know that something works, you have to test it in real time and in real scenarios. We just can't read a brochure that a vendor puts together and then go running to the board of estimates asking to spend a million dollars on a technology that we haven't tested so we wanted to try it, we wanted to prove whether it worked or not and we intended all along to have this conversation with the community but we wanted to get further along in our development, further along in our research before we could stand up here with a straight face and say hey, Baltimore, this is the next best thing on top of CC-TV. We wanted to be at a point where when we said that, we meant it and we can only mean it when we know it works."

The decision not to tell the public before launching a surveillance program of this magnitude continues to drew plenty critics.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the program an unprecedented invasion of privacy and is calling for an immediate stop to the flights.

Local politicians such as City Councilman Brandon Scott and Congressman Elijah Cummings are also vary wary of the technology and expressed their concern.

Today Cummings released the following statement:

"Today I spoke with Commissioner Kevin Davis and he will be providing me with a thorough review of the program.

"That this program has been operating for months in secret is concerning.  The DOJ report emphasized trust, and you cannot have trust without transparency.  We must vet this program with the help of organizations like the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund to determine if there is a violation of people's constitutional rights.

"I am going to continue gathering information to examine if we can balance the investigative, public safety and law enforcement benefits of this program with the constitutional rights of the people of Baltimore."

Download the ABC2 News app for the iPhone, Kindle and Android.