Group sues Baltimore police over planned aerial surveillance pilot program

The program will collect images of the city to aid investigations, which activists argue infringes on citizen's First and Fourth Amendment rights


Regina Carcia Cano
Associated Press

BALTIMORE — A grassroots think tank in Baltimore filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Baltimore Police Department and its leader over a planned crime-fighting pilot program set to start in the city that will use airplanes equipped with cameras to create a visual record of everything that can be seen in the streets below.

The group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, along with two area activists, in the lawsuit argue the program should not proceed because it violates people’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. The civil complaint filed in federal court in Baltimore argues the program infringes upon the reasonable expectation of privacy regarding movement, results in indiscriminate searches without a warrant and impedes the right to gather freely.

The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is representing the plaintiffs.

“Unlike lawful forms of aerial surveillance, the warrantless AIR program subjects Plaintiffs and virtually all of Baltimore’s 600,000 residents to long-term, wide-area, and indiscriminate surveillance that will capture the whole of an individual’s movements and thereby reveal their privacies of life,” according to the lawsuit. “This surveillance is inescapable, and revelation of private information to the AIR program is involuntary: short of never leaving home when the planes are in the air, there is no way to avoid Defendants’ surveillance system.”

The police department did not immediately return a request for comment on the lawsuit Thursday. Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison had expressed skepticism over the use of the planes, describing the idea as an “untested” crime-fighting strategy, before he announced the pilot program in December.

Under the six-month pilot program, three airplanes will collect images of the city to help investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. Last week, city officials gave final approval to the agreement with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, which will operate the airplanes and provide staff that will analyze the images.

The planes, their pilots, analysts and hangar space will be funded by the nonprofit of Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold. The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week.

The deal also pays for grants to enable independent researchers to study whether the program has an impact on Baltimore’s violent crime rate. The city has recorded more than 300 homicides yearly for the last five years.

The Arnolds also funded the 2016 secret tryout of the same technology in Baltimore. Top city officials were unaware that Persistent Surveillance Systems with the blessing of a different police commissioner was trying out its technology over Baltimore until Bloomberg Businessweek revealed it.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit also argue that even while people are at their homes, they won’t be “entire safe from surveillance” because the cameras on the airplanes will capture activity in driveways and yards.

“The data collected through the AIR program will amount to a comprehensive record of the movements of Plaintiffs and nearly everyone in Baltimore—facilitating an unprecedented police power to engage in retrospective location-tracking.”

Associated Press
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