Baltimore Police defend aerial surveillance program

Posted at 2:51 PM, Aug 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-24 18:35:42-04

Baltimore Police on Wednesday defended an aerial surveillance program used to investigate crimes in the city, saying characterizing it as a secret is inaccurate.

Bloomberg first reported the program Tuesday night. It was never disclosed publicly.

Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department has been using a plane to investigate crimes ranging from property thefts to shootings, according to the Bloomberg report. 

Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith defended the program in a news conference, denying that it was being kept a secret from Baltimore residents. 

Smith said the plane goes where the calls for service are, and it's used as a resource to investigate crimes. It gives police the ability to follow city crime in real time, he said. 

The shooter of an elderly brother and sister last winter in northwest Baltimore, for example, would not have been solved without the plane, Smith said.

The Baltimore Community Foundation said in a statement Wednesday that it received a gift of $120,000 from the Fidelity Charitable Fund for the Baltimore Police Foundation Special Grants Fund.

At the recommendation of the donor, the fund made a payment of $120,000 to Persistent Surveillance Systems, the private vendor working with Baltimore Police.

The fund allows public and private donors to contribute funds that can support police department initiatives and events, the foundation said.

Recent payments from the fund have been used to purchase food for community events, trophies for sports teams and items for the city police museum.

Smith said the plane is not being used to track anyone. 

The only residents who should fear it, he said, are criminals.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement she had only recently been made aware of the program, and called it "cutting edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safer."

"This technology is about public safety. This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone. It’s about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city," the mayor said. 

The program is drawing criticism from civil liberties advocates who called on police to discontinue its use immediately.

"The ACLU of Maryland is calling for the Baltimore Police Department to immediately stop using this surveillance,” a statement from the organization read. “And we call on the City Council to hold hearings immediately, and then prohibit use of this surveillance technology."

Common Cause Maryland President Jennifer Bevan-Dangel also released a statement, calling the program "deeply troubling." 

"This program raises a variety of concerns for Common Cause Maryland and our members. From a money-in-politics viewpoint, wealthy out-of-state interests should not be able to use their financial largesse to single-handedly create surveillance policy," Bevan-Dangel said. "Additionally, police departments - particularly those like Baltimore City’s, whose relationship with residents has been so incredibly strained already – should not be setting such radical policy without any input or oversight from citizens and their elected officials.  That this can happen – that a police department can unilaterally create a mass-surveillance program with no transparency, accountability, or public oversight – is something that needs to be rectified."

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