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BPD Backs Reboot of Controversial Surveillance Plane Program

Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Baltimore’s “eye in the sky” surveillance plane program will return in May.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said at a Friday news conference the city will launch a privately-funded pilot program to place private surveillance planes in the sky to assist in violent crime investigations.

In 2016, a surveillance plane flew above Baltimore’s streets, taping citizens’ comings and goings in secret. When Bloomberg Businessweek broke the news of the plane, civil rights groups criticized its secrecy and depth of surveillance, and the program was halted. 

Harrison noted that he was initially skeptical of the benefits the plane’s proponents claimed, but said that with proper oversight he believes it could be “another tool in our toolbox” to fight violent crime.

The program will launch after a series of town halls and will not be used to monitor crime in real time, he said.

“I’m obviously well aware of the plane’s controversial history,” the police commissioner said. “I’m looking forward from hearing from our community and to educate them on what this is and what this is not.”

The plane’s footage will only be used to investigate murders, robberies and non-fatal shootings, he said. He anticipates the program will span about four to six months. 

“We will use the data from the pilot program to tell citizens that it does or doesn’t work,” Harrison said.

The specifics of the program remain undisclosed, including how many planes will fly above the city. There could be multiple planes, Harrison said. 

Mayor Jack Young said he fully supported the decision in a statement.

“At my direction, Commissioner Harrison consulted with the Department of Justice prior to moving forward with an exploratory phase,” the Democrat said. “Any efforts we pursue have to comply with our federal Consent Decree.”

City Council President Brandon Scott, also a Democrat, decried the program.

“We need solutions that work, and Commissioner Harrison has told the City Council multiple times this year, as recently as October, that there is no evidence the surveillance plane is an effective crime-fighting tool,” Scott said. 

He noted that BPD has said that the previous surveillance yielded zero pieces of evidence.

“A spy plane in the sky might make some of us feel safer, but it is not a proven crime-fighting tool. We know this,” he said.

The city’s law department is “entirely comfortable with the program,” City Solicitor Andre Davis said, standing next to Harrison on Friday morning. It is not a violation of the ongoing consent decree, he said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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