Chief: Spy planes a boost

Har­ri­son says aerial sur­veil­lance helped close 2 cases, led to an ar­rest

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - By Jes­sica An­der­son

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.

Con­sti­tu­tion.

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.

JERRY JACKSON/BALTIMORE SUN

Eric Me­lan­con, left, chief of staff for the Baltimore Po­lice De­part­ment, and Ross McNutt, founder of Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, look over a sur­veil­lance plane.

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