Federal judge allows controversial Baltimore police surveillance planes to take flight

Tribune Content Agency

BALTIMORE — A federal judge in Baltimore has ruled the controversial police surveillance planes do not violate privacy rights of city residents, allowing a trial run of the flights to proceed.

Baltimore activists had sued the police department and asked U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett to ground the planes until their lawsuit is resolved. The nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union had petitioned for an emergency injunction.

On Friday, Bennett denied their injunction.

“The images produced by the AIR pilot program will only depict individuals as minuscule dots moving about a city landscape,” he wrote. “The movement of these dots cannot be tracked without significant labor. Gaps in the imagery data foreclose the tracking of a single person over the course of several days. This limited form of aerial surveillance does not constitute a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment, nor does it burden First Amendment speech activities.”

The attorneys had argued the planes violate protections of privacy and free association in the U.S. Constitution.

“The system would put into place the most wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an American city, giving the BPD access to a comprehensive record of the movements and activities of every Baltimore resident each time they leave their home,” the attorneys had argued.

This month, the city’s spending board voted 3-2 to approve a six-month trial run for three surveillance planes. The airplanes are paid for by wealthy Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold through their organization, Arnold Ventures. The planes can capture 90% of the city, flying for at least 40 hours a week.

The planes have been the subject of intense controversy after it was discovered that in 2016 the police department had been testing out the surveillance plane with flights over the city — unbeknownst to many city officials and without public notice.

Criticism erupted over the secrecy and the project was shelved. Police Commission Michael Harrison, who wasn’t here at the time, said he was initially skeptical of the program, but became persuaded that it could prove a valuable crime fighting tool with the right safeguards in place. He has supported a test run for six months to determine whether the plane helps catch criminals.

Harrison says photos from the planes will be stored for 45 days, unless needed for an investigation. The planes can’t be used for real-time surveillance, only to look back, he says, and no one will be arrested based solely on the images.

The activist group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle sued the department along with Erricka Bridgeford, founder of the Baltimore ceasefire movement, and Kevin James, a community organizer and hip-hop artist. The ACLU took on their case.

“Despite launching one of the most expansive domestic surveillance systems in American history, the BPD will not seek judicial approval before sending its planes into the skies to record Baltimoreans from above, nor will it seek a warrant before accessing the information for use in criminal investigations,” they wrote the judge.

Attorneys for the police department, however, noted the rare opportunity the city finds itself in with donors willing to pay more than $3.6 million to fund an experimental, new crime fighting strategy. Baltimore continues to be gripped by street violence, and the city suffered more than 300 homicides a year in each of the last five years.

“There is no violation of constitutional rights in taking low-resolution aerial photography for short time windows and using that data to develop leads in the investigation of violent crimes,” wrote Dana Moore, the acting city solicitor. “At bottom, this lawsuit is driven by Plaintiffs’ different — in their view, better — ideas of how BPD should respond to the epidemic of violent crime in Baltimore.”

The city’s spending board had approved the planes to begin flying as soon as this month.

“In a City plagued with violent crime and clamoring for police protections, this Court is loathe to take the ‘extraordinary’ step of stopping the AIR program before it even begins,” Bennett wrote.


(Baltimore Sun Reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.)


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