Baltimore Police Conduct Aerial Surveillance Flights to Test Sophisticated Cameras

The city’s public defender demanded an immediate halt to the surveillance program pending a full accounting of the technology’s capabilities and its use in the city to date.

BALTIMORE – For most of the past eight months, the Baltimore Police Department has piloted a single-engine Cessna equipped with video surveillance cameras to investigate all sorts of crimes, flying above the city for as many as 10 hours a day unbeknownst to the public, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

On clear days, approximately one-third of the city or about 30 square miles may be under continuous surveillance with a program originally developed for military applications. Developed by Dayton, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), the program has been running in Baltimore since January.

PSS founder Ross McNutt originally designed the system for the military to help determine who was planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq. The Baltimore aerial surveillance program is privately funded by a couple from Texas who donated the money to the Baltimore Community Foundation.

The plane, flying about 8,000 feet above the city, it outfitted with six wide-angle cameras that take high-resolution images at a rate of one per second. The individual camera images are stitched together to form 192-megapixel images that are continuously transmitted to the ground, where they are stored and archived.

On the ground, six analysts hired by PSS have been trained to track vehicles or people forward or backward in time. They start from a crime incident location to see where the suspects came from and where they headed after the incident. Individuals on the ground cannot be identified, as each is only represented by a few pixels. However, when combined with images from the city’s more than 700 street-level security cameras, police can use the location and movement tracking data from the analysts to assist their own investigations.

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According to Bloomberg, the Baltimore Police Department has not publicly disclosed the aerial surveillance system and has declined to comment about it.

The state Office of the Public Defender on Monday (Aug. 29) requested the police department to cease the surveillance operation until the public is briefed on the program and defense attorneys are given access to the footage.

The public defender also wants to know how evidence gathered by the recently disclosed aerial surveillance program has been stored, accessed and used in the prosecution of criminal defendants.

The office said the program should be shelved until there are “in-depth conversations” about how it works, and police should stop analyzing footage unless they have “prior judicial authorization in the form of a search warrant or equivalent court order,” the Baltimore Sun reports.

Baltimore Deputy Public Defender Natalie Finegar made the requests in letters delivered to Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

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