Inside City Hall
Without much zeal, Harrison backs “spy plane” as city approves agreement
Police Commissioner says he backs aerial surveillance to gather data on the concept, “not because we have any belief that it will work”
Above: Addressing the Board of Estimates, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison defends the aerial surveillance program he initially expressed skepticism about. (CharmTV)
Recalling how he was first put off by “unsubstantiated claims” about the proposed aerial surveillance program, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison explained – in a hedged and somewhat half-hearted way – why he now supports the initiative.
That’s after he persuaded Persistent Surveillance Systems, the plane’s operator, to stop claiming the program will be effective.
The BPD agreed to support the flights “only to allow the data to inform us of whether or not the program will work or not,” Harrison said.
“Not because we have any belief that it will work,” he continued.
Harrison spoke today before the Board of Estimates, which went on to approve the agreement by a 3-2 vote.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young had nothing to say about the program before casting his “yes” vote other than “I stand behind my commissioner.”
Also approving the plan without comment were Young’s two appointees – Acting Public Works Director Matthew Garbark and Acting City Solicitor Dana P. Moore.
Voting “no” were City Council President Brandon M. Scott and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt.
It fell to Harrison to do most of the talking on behalf of the program after the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund mounted blistering critiques of the plan.
“It’s incredible that we’re having a debate about the most far-reaching surveillance technology that has ever existed in America,” David Rocah, of the ACLU, said.
“It is the technological equivalent of having the Baltimore Police Department follow every man, woman and child every time they go out the door,” he said, calling the surveillance initiative unconstitutional.
“It is the technological equivalent of having the BPD follow every man, woman and child every time they go out the door” – ACLU of Maryland.
Monique Dixon, LDF’s director of state advocacy, also said the program raises constitutional questions and “is unlikely to build trust in a city with a history of racially discriminatory and otherwise unlawful policing.”
They asked that the board either reject the agreement or postpone a decision until the COVID-19 crisis is past.
Harrison responded by saying that city lawyers assured him the program is constitutional and that data would only be kept for 45 days. He stressed that the aerial surveillance is “a pilot” designed to gather data.
But Rocah – speaking, as the others did, via an online link at the virtual meeting – argued that the city already had a de facto pilot – the period in 2016 when the city allowed a Persistent Surveillance plane to fly secretly over the city.
The aerial surveillance “failed that test,” Rocah said, noting that “the most common offense for which it was used was trying to trash dirt bike riders.”
“I think there was only one crime of violence that arrived at some solvability” – BPD Commissioner Harrison.
Scott pressed the same point when he asked Harrison if the technology had, in 2016, resulted in any arrests for homicides or other violent crimes.
Harrison at first demurred, noting he was not working in Baltimore at the time. “I think there was only one crime of violence that arrived at some solvability,” he said.
Rocah questioned whether racial disparities are embedded in the program since analyzing the aerial footage requires coordination with street-level CCTV cameras.
Those cameras are “not distributed around Baltimore in racially neutral ways” and were overwhelmingly located in black and brown neighborhoods.
Harrison shot back that Rocah’s statement was technically true but lacked context, and observed that the cameras are strategically placed “based on incidents of violent crime over time.”
“While that may coincidentally be in black and brown neighborhoods, it’s the crime over time that determines where the cameras are placed,” he said.
In an election year amid continuing high rates of violent crime, the so-called “spy plane” has become a campaign issue.
Among the leading mayoral candidates, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, Mary Miller, T.J. Smith and Thiru Vignarajah all have expressed support for the pilot.
Vignarajah has received significant campaign contributions from the Texas couple, John and Laura Arnold, who are funding the program. In a statement today, he underlined his support for the program, but urged that it be carried out “in a constitutionally responsible way.”
Scott stood alone among the mayoral front-runners in opposing the spy plane program, saying it was too significant a proposal to rush through “especially now in the middle of a global pandemic. . . when people can’t go outside.”
He noted that there had been limited public discussion of the proposal due to the governor’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order and that the City Council had never been briefed on it.
There are other strategies to reduce the bloodshed in the city, Scott said, “focusing on violent criminals, stopping the flow of illegal guns and solving our systemic problems.”