Chief: Spy planes a boost
Harrison says aerial surveillance helped close 2 cases, led to an arrest
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced this week that investigators have so far cleared two cases — a homicide and a nonfatal shooting — with the help of the surveillance plane program launched in May.
But when pressed for details about those cases, police spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said the program has led police to one homicide arrest and to a person of interest in a shooting case.
According to the FBI, “clearance” means a case has been closed by an arrest or by exceptional means, such as when a suspect has died.
The Baltimore police declined to provide any details on the cases, including the identity of the homicide suspect, saying investigations were ongoing.
“We are currently working with our local research partners in outlining the role that the [surveillance] program has had on these cases and other potential cases,” Eldridge said in a statement.
Speaking Wednesday on WBALRadio’s C4 and Bryan Nehman show, Harrison said, “Wehave had two clearances, one for murder and one for a nonfatal shooting. Certainly we would like to see more clearances, whether it’s from the plane, the aerial investigative research, or not.”
Harrison said that it took some months to train officers, and only two of the three planes have been flying regularly.
“There are a number of investigations under way where we have asked for information from the program,” he said, but added that police must determine if the planes were flying at the time that the crimes occurred.
The Cessna planes are launched from Martin State Airport during daylight hours and are capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week. It does not operate at night, when many of the city’s shootings and homicides occur.
Harrison initially opposed operating the planes in Baltimore, but later agreed to the pilot project, saying he was interested in evidence-based solutions to fight crime.
Baltimore is the first city to launch such a project, and if successful, its operators hope it could lead to similar programs elsewhere.
The program has faced extensive criticism, in part because the city launched a similar project in 2016 with no public disclosure.
Critics, including several City Council members, questioned the efficacy of the current program, which they say infringes on people’s privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has fought against the program, arguing in a lawsuit that the plane is a threat to the right to privacy and free association under the First and Fourth amendments of the U.S.
The city isn’t paying for the $3.7 million program, which is operated by a private company based in Ohio called Persistent Surveillance Systems. It is being privately funded by Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures.
Earlier this summer, the department reported it had received complaints about noise from the planes. Police said the plane was flying at a lower altitude of 3,000 feet, which they said was needed because of cloud cover.
Since the beginning of the year, Baltimore has seen a decline in other crime categories, such as nonfatal shootings, but homicides remain near last year’s record pace, when more than 300 people were killed in the city. As of Wednesday, 191 people were killed compared with 196 at the same time last year.
Eric Melancon, left, chief of staff for the Baltimore Police Department, and Ross McNutt, founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, look over a surveillance plane.