BPD’s spy in the sky
Our view: Baltimore police must shut down a secret aerial surveillance program until it can be publicly vetted
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.