This post has been updated.
The press and the citizens of Baltimore have gotten hold of some information which has some of the residents up in arms. (And recent history demonstrates that this is a dangerous state of affairs in Charm City.) Ever since January, running all throughout the trials of the Freddie Gray police officers and the protests which were ongoing for most of that time, there’s been an eye in the sky watching them thanks to the Baltimore police and it has nothing to do with an Alan Parsons Project album. (Bloomberg)
[A] small Cessna airplane equipped with a sophisticated array of cameras was circling Baltimore at roughly the same altitude as the massing clouds. The plane’s wide-angle cameras captured an area of roughly 30 square miles and continuously transmitted real-time images to analysts on the ground. The footage from the plane was instantly archived and stored on massive hard drives, allowing analysts to review it weeks later if necessary.
Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department had been using the plane to investigate all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings. The Cessna sometimes flew above the city for as many as 10 hours a day, and the public had no idea it was there.
A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Dayton, Ohio, provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor. No public disclosure of the program had ever been made.
The article has the full details of the technology involved and the company which is providing the service so there’s no point in going through it all again here. The bottom line is that a third party contractor is flying a Cessna over the city with cameras recording the activity in the public streets. A second point worth noting is that the public was never informed that the pilot program (no pun intended) was underway.
There are two obvious problems with this. First of all, since public funds are being spent on the service, the public should have been told. (See update below.) Not only is this important in terms of government accountability regarding the budget, but people generally behave better when they think that the authorities are watching. (It’s a fact I’ll allow you to Google for yourself. Tests have been done proving this premise for decades.) So yes, the police messed up on that score.
But the other shortcoming is far more serious. Why on Earth would they be paying someone that much money for a single Cessna to fly around during limited hours? The contract is costing them millions and by their own admission, the resolution of the resulting pictures is too poor to identify automobiles, say nothing of people. You can get some hints and potentially track the movement of a target if it can be matched up against ground cameras, but that’s about it.
We have drones now! They’re a lot cheaper and can fly any time, day or night. And thanks to the new regulations we discussed earlier today, you don’t need a certified Air Force pilot on call all the time. They can hire some sixteen year olds (which is the minimum FAA required age) with a more easily obtainable certification and have them flying their robotic cameras at lower altitudes all over town. High quality cameras are readily available and streaming video technology isn’t much of a mystery in 2016.
Why isn’t Baltimore already on this path? Their crime rate is skyrocketing and far too many violent crimes go unsolved. Just keep the drones up above a reasonable height where they might be taken out by a pistol or shotgun and you should be golden. Get on it, guys.
UPDATE: (Jazz) Well, that didn’t take long. Once word of the program got out to a wider audience the Public Defender office was calling for them to shut it down immediately.
Baltimore’s public defender’s office is asking the police department to suspend its use of a private plane that had until last week been flying above the city streets recording aerial surveillance without the public’s knowledge.
Baltimore Deputy Public Defender Natalie Finegar sent Commissioner Kevin Davis and State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby a copy of the written request Monday.
In the letter Finegar writes that the program should not continue without “in-depth conversations” and that without judicial approval in the form of a warrant or court order, analysts should not view footage.
Also, I clearly left some questions in the original article about the funding. This is a private company operating the plane, but doing it on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department. What I originally misunderstood from the article was the fact that the private funding for the program was the only way it’s been funded in Baltimore. The owner provided an estimate that it would cost roughly two million per year, but he seems to still be doing the work on spec in the hopes of landing such contracts in more metropolitan areas. With that in mind, there may have been less of an imperative to tell the public immediately (a point which may be moot if they are ordered to cancel it) but if it does move to a publicly funded, long term contract, then the public should definitely be informed of the costs.