BPD’s spy in the sky

Our view: Bal­ti­more po­lice must shut down a se­cret aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram un­til it can be pub­licly vet­ted

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment should im­me­di­ately sus­pend a trial aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram it has been con­duct­ing in se­cret since Jan­uary un­til the com­mu­nity re­ceives an ex­pla­na­tion of its pa­ram­e­ters and pri­vacy pro­tec­tions, and a pub­lic dis­cus­sion can be held about its pos­si­ble mer­its and draw­backs.

The fact that the BPD chose to launch the ef­fort this win­ter with­out pub­lic dis­clo­sure — amid a fed­eral pat­tern and prac­tice in­ves­ti­ga­tion — makes us se­ri­ously ques­tion the judgment of Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis, who has been en­trusted to lead depart­ment re­forms fol­low­ing a scathing re­port this month by the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice find­ing wide­spread civil rights vi­o­la­tions of Bal­ti­more cit­i­zens.

For years, the BPD has shown a stun­ning lack of trans­parency, which has al­lowed bad cops to re­main on the pay­roll, and com­mu­nity re­la­tions to de­te­ri­o­rate to the point where many res­i­dents are more fear­ful of po­lice than po­ten­tial crim­i­nals. The mes­sage for too long has been that po­lice know best how to han­dle their busi­ness with­out the in­put of oth­ers, when that’s clearly not the case.

And while Com­mis­sioner Davis has re­peat­edly said he val­ues trans­parency and work­ing in part­ner­ship with the pub­lic, his re­cent ac­tions sug­gest he doesn’t yet grasp their sig­nif­i­cance. Why not just dis­close the pro­gram? And why dis­miss it as no big deal once it’s made pub­lic?

When news re­ports re­vealed that a pri­vate com­pany was record­ing aerial im­ages of the city on be­half of the Po­lice Depart­ment, the pub­lic out­rage was swift and loud. Yet the depart­ment wrote off the re­ac­tion as overblown.

“There was no con­spir­acy not to dis­close” the pro­gram, po­lice spokesman T.J. Smith said, sug­gest­ing this was the rou­tine ad­di­tion of some new tech­nol­ogy in a depart­ment that doesn’t even have com­put­ers in its cars.

This pro­gram is hardly rou­tine. Thus far, it has used so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy and a Cessna air­plane to con­duct 300 hours of sur­veil­lance on Bal­ti­more, record­ing im­ages that cover up to 32 square miles at any given point. If you live or work in the city, there’s a strong pos­si­bil­ity you show up in the cap­tured data — most of which cer­tainly shows reg­u­lar peo­ple go­ing about their per­fectly le­gal rou­tines. The hope, of course, is that il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity will also be caught, but that’s a very wide net to cast with­out in­form­ing the pub­lic first. We don’t know in any de­tail how the im­ages will be used, who will have ac­cess to them or what their po­ten­tial harms may be.

Some groups raised sim­i­lar pri­vacy ques­tions last year when it was dis­closed that the FBI used sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy while fly­ing over Bal­ti­more dur­ing the un­rest that fol­lowed Fred­die Gray’s death. That was dur­ing sub­stan­tial tur­moil; no one thought such mea­sures would be in place in times of rel­a­tive peace.

Per­haps that’s naive. In this day and age, we should prob­a­bly as­sume we’re be­ing recorded when­ever we’re in pub­lic — by se­cu­rity cam­eras, po­lice body cam­eras, Ci­tiWatch cam­eras, kiss cams, by­standers with phones, what­ever. But para­noia is no Ross McNutt, left, an­swers ques­tions about his com­pany’s sur­veil­lance sys­tem as po­lice spokesman T.J. Smith looks on. sub­sti­tute for pub­lic dis­clo­sure from civil ser­vants con­duct­ing the pub­lic’s busi­ness. The lack of dis­clo­sure about an­other BPD se­cret sur­veil­lance pro­gram that sweeps up civil­ian cell­phone data has led to crim­i­nal cases be­ing thrown out of court; does Bal­ti­more re­ally want to take that risk here?

City of­fi­cials and res­i­dents may very well em­brace the pri­vately funded pro­gram on­api­lot ba­sis af­ter proper vet­ting. In a state­ment Wed­nes­day night, Com­mis­sioner Davis said the tech­nol­ogy was worth a shot, es­pe­cially given that 84 per­cent of the city’s homi­cides oc­cur in out­door pub­lic spa­ces, and that other cam­eras have been use­ful in solv­ing crimes.

Al­ready this tech­nol­ogy has been used to make sev­eral “non-fa­tal shoot­ing ar­rests,” the com­mis­sioner said. And Ross McNutt, the founder of Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, told re­porters that his an­a­lysts have as­sem­bled “in­ves­tiga­tive briefs” in 102 crimes based on the sur­veil­lance footage.

But with­out a pub­lic dis­cus­sion, it’s still un­clear whether the ben­e­fits of such in­for­ma­tion out­weigh con­cerns over pri­vacy rights — some­thing Mr. McNutt knew would be an is­sue should the tech­nol­ogy be dis­closed. When he tried to launch the pro­gram in his na­tive Ohio, pub­lic push­back pre­vented it from go­ing for­ward, so he moved it else­where and tried again, this time qui­etly. That’s his pre­rog­a­tive as a businessman; his pri­or­i­ties aren’t nec­es­sar­ily the pub­lic’s. Com­mis­sioner Davis, how­ever, should have known bet­ter than to slip this in on the sly.

In his state­ment, he promised a “ro­bust and in­clu­sive com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tion” if the depart­ment rec­om­mends “per­ma­nently” pur­su­ing this tech­nol­ogy. But the time for that has al­ready passed.

What­ever good this pro­gram may have done in terms of crime fight­ing at least for now has been over­shad­owed by its shady im­ple­men­ta­tion, which has also called into ques­tion Com­mis­sioner Davis’ com­mit­ment to trans­parency. For the pub­lic to be­lieve it’s a part­ner in po­lice re­form, it has to be treated like one.


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