© 2024 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Baltimore Spending Board Terminates Controversial Surveillance Plane Contract

Patrick Semansky/AP

Baltimore City’s spending board voted unanimously Wednesday to end a privately operated controversial surveillance plane program funded by Texas philanthropists. 


The program’s “spy planes” have been grounded since a six-month pilot program concluded Oct. 31, but Baltimore’s contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems was not due to expire until October 2021. 


The Board of Estimates’ decision formally terminated the program, which flew several planes equipped with cameras over Baltimore, recording images of 32 square miles in hopes of capturing evidence to prosecute violent criminals.   


City police officials told the board they will destroy 85% of the data collected by the planes. The remainder will be saved for ongoing investigations.


“With the amount of violence that we have here in the city of Baltimore, people are going to look for any and every thing they think is going to be able to bring them to some immediate relief,” Mayor Brandon Scott said during a news conference. 


But when top police officials looked at data surrounding the program’s efficacy in solving and prosecuting violent crime cases, “there was no significant real difference in whether the plane was involved in the case or not,” Scott said.  


The program was greenlit last spring under former mayor Jack Young, despite concerns from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU that the program would raise constitutional questions and erode public confidence in the police department.


The program had the conditional support of Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, who has said he would ground planes if they failed to produce results.


Harrison helped negotiate the city’s agreement with Persistent Surveillance Systems, which called for data from the planes to be destroyed after 45 days unless it was needed for an investigation and for the planes to fly during daytime hours only.


Scott has argued images from daylight hours were not enough to provide leads or evidence for violent crimes, which generally occur after dark.


“If we want to bring down violence in Baltimore, we need proven public safety strategies that respect residents’ constitutional rights while engaging communities holistically,” said Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee. “The surveillance plane did not strike that balance.”


Laura and John Arnold, the Texan billionaires who funded the program, announced through their company, Arnold Ventures, they would not fund a similar program in St. Louis, despite recent approval of the project by the Missouri city’s spending board.


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.