ACLU attempts to block Baltimore surveillance planes from flight

ACLU attempts to block Baltimore surveillance planes from flight

There was a rather amazing bit of good news coming out of Florida this weekend. As of yesterday, there have been no murders recorded in the city of Miami for seven straight weeks. If that sounds like an underwhelming statistic to you, we should put it in context and note that this is the first time that’s happened since 1957. The ongoing pandemic is being credited by the police as the largest factor driving this happy news.

I brought up that story mostly to draw a contrast with another city where things aren’t going nearly as well. That would be Baltimore, Maryland. To be sure, the murder rate in Charm City is down from the same period last year (finally). After averaging more than one murder per day through the first six weeks of the year, even some of the gang bangers seem to be staying at home. But there have still been 85 murders on the year, with four more recorded in the past week.

Good news may be on the way, however. Beginning next month, three surveillance planes will be back up in the skies above the city, providing constant video data of 90% of all activity on the streets. When a crime takes place, police will be able to track the movements of cars and pedestrians in the area both before and after the incident. It’s a program that was first tested in 2016 with a great deal of success. Unfortunately, it was terminated after so-called privacy advocates complained about it. An attempt to resurrect it last August was once again rejected on the same basis. But now, after the city set a per capita homicide rate record last year, the municipal government finally relented and agreed to give it another try. It almost didn’t happen, though, because the ACLU (along with other groups) once again went back to court and tried to put a stop to it. But his time they failed. A federal judge has declared the program legal and permissible so the planes are currently cleared for takeoff.

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.

“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.

We’ve discussed this technology here before and it’s pretty amazing. During the original pilot program (no pun intended), several violent crimes were solved quickly when surveillance video allowed police to retrace the steps of shooters to the moment they left their residence and track down the spot where they went to ground afterward. Perhaps even more importantly, gang members quickly became aware that there were eyes in the skies and at least some of them appeared to become less brazen about their activities.

Also, as an added bonus, this entire program is being provided to the city at zero cost to the taxpayers. A pair of wealthy Texas philanthropists, Laura and John Arnold, are funding the planes, the pilots, overtime money for the police, and even the expenses of a board set up to monitor the program for any civil rights violations. The fact that there is still opposition to the program by some of the city’s elected leaders is mind-boggling. It’s even more amazing when you consider that polls have consistently shown that the aerial surveillance program is wildly popular with Baltimore residents, with nearly 75% expressing support, including Black residents who make up a majority of the city’s population.

We shall see how well the surveillance program does this time. At the moment, Baltimore is on track to rack up roughly 250 murders in 2020, a significant decrease from last year. But that figure is based on the current period when the pandemic is decreasing all activity across the region. The lockdown won’t last forever and gang violence always spikes during the hot summer months. Perhaps this program can change those grim statistics a bit for the better.

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