Baltimore will soon become the first city in the United States to be put under aerial surveillance. A recently announced pilot program will have police surveilling the city via airplane for up to six months starting in May, and they will attempt to track violent crimes. The city is currently experiencing one of its most violent years on record, with over 330 homicides just in 2019.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said in a statement that this will be “another tool” to help the department fight violence.
“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” Harrison said.
The Baltimore police department claims the planes will not be able to identify specific people but will instead be able to track people’s movement. The planes will surveil roughly 90 percent of the city, and the department intends to share more information about this project in the near future.
As you might expect, this announcement has drawn harsh criticism from civil liberties groups that oppose police departments expanding their surveillance powers. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Coalition for Justice, Safety and Jobs said in a joint statement that this technology will be used to infringe on the privacy rights of people of color. Baltimore is a predominantly black city.
“The surveillance plane means putting every resident of Baltimore under permanent surveillance, creating a video record of everywhere that everyone goes every time they walk outside. If the police did that in real life, in person on our streets, we would never accept it,” the groups said. “Like most police technologies, this one will have the greatest impacts in Black and Brown neighborhoods, because it relies for its effectiveness on the network of ground-based cameras, which are concentrated in those communities.”
This program is not the first time Baltimore residents have found themselves under aerial surveillance. Back in 2016, Baltmore police teamed up with a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems to test out aerial surveillance using a Cessna airplane flown at around 8,000 feet, and the department did not inform local lawmakers it was doing this. This drew a backlash from civil liberties groups and local politicians when it was reported by Bloomberg Businessweek).
Back in 2015, the FBI admitted to flying surveillance planes over protests that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray. As you may recall, Gray was a 25-year-old black man who died due to traumatic injuries he experienced while being transported by a police van after he was arrested for allegedly possessing an illegal knife. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request that was filed by the ACLU and The Baltimore Sun, some of the roughly 36 hours of footage that was captured by the FBI was released in 2016.
As civil liberties groups have said, subjecting people to this level of surveillance is a major violation of their privacy and could be considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Especially when it is used to monitor activists, this kind of surveillance also represents a threat to people’s First Amendment rights. Everyone wants the police to help reduce the violent crime rate, but many feel like this is the wrong way to do it.