Baltimore Police’s Secret Surveillance Comes to Light

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Update: As the BORDC/DDF reported back in September of this year, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) hired an independent surveillance contractor to conduct hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance on the city of Baltimore. The BPD entirely bypassed any form of checks and balances by not informing the mayor, Maryland lawmakers, or the police unions.

According to FOIA documents from 2015, the BPD was using aerial surveillance long before they partnered with Persistent Surveillance in January of 2016. In the aftermath of the death of Freddy Gray, the BPD reached out to the FBI and asked for their assistance in the form of airborne surveillance technology. The FOIA documents show that the FBI complied, and monitored the people of Baltimore on and off throughout April and May of 2015. The documents do not reveal if the FBI actually obtained any “actionable leads” from the footage, but the FOIAs do cement two conclusions. First, it is an example of the relative ease with which local police departments can have military-grade technology dispatched to monitor civil unrest. Second, it shows that the FBI closely monitors protesters on social media and attempts to predict their movements.

In January, the Baltimore Police Department began a months-long partnership with an Ohio-based private company known as Persistent Surveillance Systems. Persistent Surveillance was hired to conduct hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance over the city of Baltimore using specialized cameras mounted to a Cessna that patrolled 32 square miles of the city. The BPD did not inform elected officials or Baltimore residents of the program, and its existence only came to light because of an article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

The aerial surveillance conducted by Persistent Surveillance has resulted in 102 investigations, and the State Attorney is currently working on five cases where the technology was used in the collection of evidence. According to Persistent Surveillance, the images collected from the Cessna are not clear enough to identify specific individuals. However, the images can be used to track the movements of bodies and vehicles, and can be used in coordination with CitiWatch cameras (on the ground cameras) to get clearer images of a person spotted using the Cessna.

At the start of the program, the BPD failed to inform Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the police unions, the public defender’s office and Maryland lawmakers at both the state and federal levels. BPD spokesperson T.J. Smith denied that the police department kept the surveillance program a secret, and claimed that the program was merely an extension of the preexisting CitiWatch program that uses street cameras. Experts in privacy law were quick to point out that there is a considerable difference between a single camera in a fixed location and multiple cameras fastened to a small aircraft that can follow specific individuals and vehicles within the city’s limits.

At a press conference earlier this week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis refused to comment on the surveillance program and promised that a serious discussion of the program would occur at an unspecified later date. In a private meeting, Davis reportedly apologized repeatedly to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) for not informing him of the program and for creating a significant public backlash that will make it harder to implement the program later on. Cummings told Davis that the BPD should consult with civil liberties groups, legal professionals and the community at large before moving forward, and that the BPD has once again shown its lack of transparency.

The lack of transparency was made possible by the fact that the trial program was privately funded, which means that the BPD did not have to seek budgetary approval from the Baltimore Board of Estimates. The funding came from billionaires John and Laura Arnold, two private citizens from Houston that formerly worked as oil executives.

A Rush to Action

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has stepped in to advise the Baltimore City Council, which is already working to draft legislation that prevents this form of surveillance from occurring without public discussion and approval. The ACLU-MD has described the surveillance program as the equivalent of “attaching a GPS tracker to each and every one of us every time we walk out of our house or office building.” Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott expressed outrage the program had been conducted in secrecy, but was against shutting the program down because “a lot of black people have asked for CCTV surveillance in their neighborhoods.”

Lawmakers in the Maryland House of Delegates are also pushing for legislation that will require public oversight of police surveillance programs, and plan to propose reforms at the start of the next General Assembly session.

The spy plane is currently grounded, but a police spokesperson has said that it may be used again during the Baltimore Running Festival and Maryland Fleet Week and Air Show.

Baltimore Targeted Again

Baltimore is no stranger to controversies surrounding surveillance technologies. In August, a coalition of civil liberties groups joined forces to file an official complaint with the FCC over the BPD’s use of stingrays (read more about stingrays in Baltimore and the FCC petition here).

Baltimore was identified as an ideal testing ground for this technology because of the police department’s extensive history of disregarding the need for public oversight and transparency. BPD’s failure to disclose the use of this technology will only further sow the seeds of distrust within a community that has dealt with excessive profiling and minimal police oversight.