From [HERE] At 2:30 p.m. on a hot July Thursday in West Baltimore, 7-year-old Taylor Hanes was shot in the back while sitting in a parked Honda Accord with her aunt and cousin. After clinging to life for two weeks in an area hospital, she died on July 19. She would have started second grade this fall. It is still not known who the bullet that killed her was meant for.
Taylors aunt, Darnell Holmes, was arrested after the shooting when heroin and a loaded gun were found in the glovebox of the car; according to the Baltimore Sun, Holmes is not cooperating with the homicide investigation. Police street cameras captured footage of a white Mercedes Benz that they suspect was involved in the shooting, but the crime itself was not caught on camera. The investigation remains at a standstill.
Including Taylor Hanes, 192 people have been murdered in Baltimore this year. Baltimore has the second-highest murder-per-capita rate in the U.S. Last year, the city saw its highest murder rate per-capita: 346 murders, or 56 murders per 100,000 people. Between 2016 and 2017, Baltimore’s violent crime rate — which includes robberies, rapes, aggravated and common assaults, shootings, and homicides — rose 12.6 percent to 6,733 incidents per 100,000 people.
The seemingly ceaseless violence has prompted a group of residents to call for a different approach to public safety: an aerial surveillance system. A piloted plane would fly over the city, capture images from 30,000 feet in the air, and use a computer program to stitch the photos together for a real-time, by-the-second portrait of what’s happening on the ground.
With access to all 911 dispatches, which provide information about the the time and place of a crime, local analysts could track the dot-like people and cars at the scene of a crime forward and backward in time until they arrive at a house or address. With a permit from the city of Baltimore, this surveillance system could access videos from street cameras and cross-reference their aerial data with precise, on-the-ground footage. The analysts would then compose a PowerPoint report with visual data and a written explanation regarding the activities of all possible suspects or witnesses, and they send out five copies of that report via thumb drive: two copies go to the Baltimore police (one for an investigator, and one for evidence storage), and if the case goes to trial, two copies are given to the city prosecutor, and one copy is given to the defense. All of this could occur in just a few hours.
Baltimore residents argue that a system like this is the only solution for a city grappling with high crime rates and a systemically corrupt police department.
But there is a catch. Baltimore police unlawfully and secretly tried using an aerial surveillance system for 30 days in January and February of 2016 and then for 60 days from June to August of 2016 — but didn’t tell citizens they were using it. The department was testing the system through a free trial from Persistent Surveillance Systems, a Dayton, Ohio-based company that previously rigged small Cessna airplanes with cameras for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. When The Washington Post broke the news in August 2016 that the Baltimore Police Department was testing an aerial surveillance system in the city, citizens were outraged. The trial was subsequently aborted.
Ross McNutt, the founder and CEO of PSS, told The Outline that the trial run only focused on Class A crimes like arson, robbery, rape, aggravated and common assault, and homicide. During the 314 hours of flight time in the trial, PSS gathered more than one million snapshots and followed up on 18 shootings, three stabbings, one rape, two aggravated assaults, three burglaries, and five murders. Of those cases, McNutt said that two have gone to trial, and they are both cases of assaults against female police officers. The Baltimore police has not disclosed how many times PSS data has helped make an arrest.
McNutt said that the company wanted the Baltimore police to tell the city’s residents about the program, but the department wanted to keep the trial under wraps, claiming they wanted to first confirm that PSS actually works. They instructed McNutt against going public. “We were not allowed to say what we were doing,” McNutt said. (PSS has been deploying its aircrafts to city police departments since 2007. The company previously tested aerial and other surveillance programs in Compton, California, Dayton, Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey, but it has yet to sign a long-term contract with a city.)
But a group of Baltimore residents want aerial surveillance to come back to their city. In 2017, Joyous Jones and Archie Williams, who live near the site of Taylor Hanes’s murder, co-founded a group called Community With Solutions, which currently has six core members, to urge city government to bring back PSS. Though the group is wary of surveillance, it sees it as a viable, last-resort solution given the ways the existing law enforcement system disadvantages and fails city residents.
PSS works by getting information about a crime from 911 dispatchers, doing an analysis about the crime, and sending that analysis to the police. Theoretically, since it’s a private company, PSS could be engaged at the service of the city as a whole in an attempt to crack down on police brutality. But citizens would have to be armed with a lawyer in order to tip off PSS to suspicious activity.
The advocates of the Community With Solutions insist that they are not concerned about how PSS would affect their privacy. “There are cameras everywhere you go,” Jones said. “There’s cameras in stores, there’s cameras in the banks, cameras in the church, there’s cameras everywhere you go. So I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy. And maybe you’d be less likely to do [a crime].”
Since it’s impossible to clearly see humans and cars from PSS video, Williams told The Outline that some of his privacy concerns have been mitigated. “Once Ross breaks the policies down, they realize he’s not violating anyone,” Williams said. “Because you can’t see if the person’s a man or a woman. All you see is a dot.”
Jones told The Outline that she believes that PSS can also help fight against racial profiling in policing. “[PSS] doesn’t tell us the race of a person, it doesn’t tell us the height of a person,” Jones said. “It can tell us if that person jumps in the car, it can tell if that person ran away from the scene. They’re dots. They’re just dots.”
In 2016, the Department of Justice found that the Baltimore police department systematically targeted and violated the constitutional rights of people of color within the city by disproportionately stopping, searching, arresting, using violent and excessive force, and killing them.
As people in the city continue to die, both by other citizens and by police, some citizens feel as if they’re running out of options to stop the problem. The existing system of policing isn’t solving crimes quickly or precisely enough. Baltimore’s police department is paying more than $18 million for body cameras, but police routinely shut them off and unabashedly continued to plant and fabricate evidence.
Stanley is not convinced by McNutt’s argument. “The fact is, when we’re in public, we expect that people can see us at any moment, but we can also see them, so we know who can see us,” Stanley said. “And we expect that people can see us moment-to-moment. We don’t expect somebody can string together all of our movements over hours, days, weeks, and months. But this technology can do that not just for specific individuals, but for everybody at once. And that’s a radical new power that nobody in the history of the world has really had.”
David Johnson, Sr., who is an organizer for the Baltimore Black Think Tank, which doubles as an advocacy group and a virtual community forum for city policies affecting people of color, told The Outline that he doesn’t believe that aerial surveillance would benefit Baltimore.
“American surveillance has been used in an extremely negative manner against the black community,” Johnson said. Police departments from cities like Memphis and St. Louis have used social media to track and spy on activists associated with Black Lives Matter. “We’re seeing things like this nationwide as military companies are coming in, and they’re bringing in military technology into civilian life, disguised as law enforcement.”
Earlier this year, court testimony revealed that Baltimore police were regularly engaging in the illegal practice of attaching GPS devices to the cars of suspected drug dealers tracking their movements. In June, the city introduced $5 million worth of Shotspotter cameras, which collect ambient noise and notify 911 operators gunshot noises are detected. Shotspotter, which is privately owned and based in Newark, California, claims that its cameras offset peoples’ hesitance to call 911 after a shooting due to fear and mistrust of the police. However, it’s not clear that these cameras are actually effective at reducing crime.
Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, said to The Outline that it’s crucial to analyze PSS not as one company, but as the manifestation of broader attitudes about what police tactics people find acceptable. [MORE]