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Eye in the Sky: BPD’s Aerial Overreach

Staff Writer Anna Silk '18

· drone,Baltimore,Anna Silk

The Baltimore Police Department’s presence in Baltimore has reached new heights, literally: the sky. Through a contract with a private company called Persistent Surveillance Systems based in Ohio, the BPD is now testing aerial surveillance technology on a Cessna airplane to capture footage of around thirty-two square miles of Baltimore at a time. The City already has a CitiWatch program in place, which utilizes strategic placement of street cameras to aid in solving crime. The key difference is that while a street camera remains static and can only capture footage from the area around it, the aerial camera is mobile and can follow people or vehicles throughout the entire city without their knowledge. The testing program itself has only recently been revealed.  An article by Bloomberg Businessweek on August 23, 2016 enlightened the Baltimore City Council and the local community itself to this new use of technology that had not been discussed or condoned by the public prior to the article’s publication.

The ACLU and other activist groups have severely denounced the program, citing that federal investigation into its lawfulness is essential. The BPD is painting the program as being an extension of CCTV use, but surveilling a population from above at all times of the day is quite different from planting cameras on street corners. The debate over security versus privacy is an important one to consider.  Would the reduction of crime be worth constant and invisible surveillance? Critics insist that warrants should be obtained before using the technology to fight crime, such as with home searches.

This is not the first incident of the BPD being accused of violating the law. In August 2016, activist groups alleged to the Federal Communication Commission that the BPD was unlawfully using cellphone technology called a “stingray” to intercept calls. Calls would connect to the stingray, which was disguised as a cell tower apparatus, allowing the BPD to be able to locate where the call is originating from. In addition to seeking legal justification for the use of the stingray, the groups say that because cell phones become blocked, it poses a hazard for potential calls to 911. In August 2016 as well, the U.S. Justice Department published a scathing report of the BPD’s policing practices, deeming them to be a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments. The report also states that Baltimore’s African-American community is being unfairly targeted and mistreated by the Department.       

In the face of the city’s unrest last April, it is imperative that the BPD takes measures to restore a line of trust and open communication between the Department and the Baltimore community. This latest incident of shrouded and invasive technology that the BPD employs impacts the mindset of the community and creates a deep level of apprehension. Transparency should be an essential component of the BPD’s actions and a lack of dialogue over programs that directly affect the local community contradicts the mission of a police department to protect and inform its citizens. It is time for the Baltimore Police Department to reconsider its approach to the people of Baltimore and understand that only through transparency and respect can a strong rapport between the police and the community exist.

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