Baltimore's "Eye in the Sky" Program: What's Next? | WYPR

Baltimore's "Eye in the Sky" Program: What's Next?

Nov 12, 2020

One of the police surveillance aircraft flown over Baltimore for the Aerial Investigation Research, or AIR program.
Credit Perpetual Surveillance Systems

Last May, an Ohio-based company called Persistent Surveillance Systems was granted permission to conduct a six-month trial program in Baltimore -- paid for by a foundation in Texas -- to determine if an Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) program was an effective way to help local police and prosecutors in their efforts to solve crimes.  The trial period ended on October 31st.  Final data from the trial program has not yet been released, but since it was first revealed in 2016 that planes were flying over the skies of Baltimore and recording the goings-on below during a previously unpublicized surveillance trial, the "eye in the sky" program has been controversial.  Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison was initially a skeptic about the efficacy of the AIR program, but after consulting with community members he agreed to the trial run...

Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that the planes do not violate privacy rights.  But activists and opponents worry that the program can easily be abused, and Mayor Elect Brandon Scott has expressed little confidence in the program.  

With the 6-month trial period and unsuccessful court challenges behind it, the AIR program has reached an inflection point, as new data on its effectiveness as a policing tool becomes available, and as new city leadership prepares to take office with serious reservations about the aerial surveillance plan.

On today's Midday, a range of perspectives on the AIR program. Tom talks first with Marshall Bell, director of the Community Support Program for Perpetual Surveillance Systems, the AIR program contractor.  Next, Tom is joined by Rev. Duane Simmons, the long-time pastor of the Simmons Memorial Baptist Church in West Baltimore.  Pastor Simmons is also the founder of a community and business coalition called Community With Solutions, whose 70+ members recently called on city leaders to proceed with the surveillance program.

Then, Tom welcomes Lawrence Grandpre to the Midday conversation. He’s the director of research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Baltimore community-action group that opposes the roll-out of the AIR program, and last April filed suit in federal court to stop it.  The LBS suit, which was unsuccessful, was joined by the ACLU of Maryland, whose senior staff attorney, David Rocah, joins us on Zoom as Tom’s final guest.