Baltimore Police respond to report on aerial surveillance use, unknown if it'll be adopted

BALTIMORE (WBFF) -- Baltimore City Police have reviewed a report by the Police Foundation which looks into the effectiveness and implementation of aerial surveillance technology that was tested last year in the city as part of a crime fighting strategy. Baltimore’s Police Department is continuing to “comb through” the report reviewing its use of persistent surveillance technology but on Saturday, a statement was released in initial response.

“We agree with the recommendations in this report,” a statement released by police's chief spokesperson TJ Smith reads. Yet, he says, whether or not the program, with technology by Persistent Surveillance Systems, will actually be adopted in the long-term remains up in the air.

He continues, “From the onset of this, our goal was to experiment with a potential crime fighting and crime solving tool. The report reflected that. We used the technology on a diverse array of crimes to understand its value to the entire city of Baltimore.”

When Bloomberg Businessweek released a cover story in August exposing the fact that testing of the surveillance program by police using a Cessna 207 aircraft had not been disclosed to the public, many eyebrows were raised, prompting Smith to proclaim that this wasn’t a “secret spy plane.” Later, the department would defend its need to test out the new technology and offer further details to the public.

“Over the course of this trial phase, we were able to use the technology to assist in several cases that are currently under investigation. We look forward to continuing to work through the judicial process with successful prosecutions,” says Smith.

One example of an "exercise simulated shooting" took place on September 9, 2016 around 1:15 p.m. on W. North Ave. near Bloomingdale Rd. A shooting was reported in the area and "analysts" reportedly identified several cars nearby. The report explains that two cars were identified based on witness reports. Both cars, believed to be a white Ford Excursion and a gray 2012 Ford Focus, were seen going to and from an address on Riggs Ave. "before and after the simulated shooting." According to the report, "ground cameras were used to identify and verify routes," which are intricately detailed turn by turn. Overhead images captured by cameras also have captions identifying multiple potential witnesses, the suspect vehicles, and the victim creating a near "road map" to criminal activity in the area.

The report also details the flight orbit areas over Baltimore, which include the Western and Eastern. The Western Orbit "covers the Western, Central Police Districts in their entirety and portions of the South, Southwestern, Northwestern, North, and North Eastern and Eastern Districts," while the Eastern Orbit "covers the Central and Eastern Districts in their entirety, and covered major portions of the Southeastern, Northeastern, North and Northwest Police Districts."

Between the two orbits, "portions of all of the BPD districts were covered," the report states.

Before outlining a list of 10 recommendations, it also sets a foundation to explain the initial reason the technology was considered.

"In light of Baltimore’s rising crime and staffing challenges, BPD has been looking for innovative, cost -effective programs to address crime fighting and staffing resources."

"In August 2015, as BPD was contemplating new programs and technology, it was contacted by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) with a proposal to test persistent surveillance in an urban environment. PSS offered to demonstrate its effectiveness at reducing crime with airborne surveillance data," the report continues.

"PSS maintained that full time operation of this pilot program could reduce Baltimore’s crime rate by as much as 20-30%, and would reduce public safety costs for the City of Baltimore as it tackled violent crime in the city."

The report justifies the department's testing of PSS, saying, "Given the investments that BPD had already made to investigate, deter, and interrupt crime through the use of CCTV cameras and aerial surveillance (using helicopters), adding persistent surveillance technology to its portfolio of intelligence gathering seemed consistent with the Baltimore’s use of surveillance tools and a logical extension of the CitiWatch program. Accordingly, the BPD and PSS entered into an agreement to test the viability of persistent surveillance technology in Baltimore, and named the pilot program the “Baltimore Community Support Program” (BCSP)."

According to the Police Foundation, whose mission statement is "advancing policing through innovation and science," the program was intended to operate separately from the pre-existing CitiWatch camera program, but both BPD and PSS wanted the two programs to work in connection "as a way of increasing the effectiveness of CitiWatch."

Three developmental stages of the program were designed:

  • Phase I – technology and integration
  • Phase II – operational impact of the crime and cases generated by PSS’s technology
  • Phase III – a not-yet-scheduled programmatic evaluation

The BCSP office was set up in January 2016 and the Cessna 207 plane would fly out of Martin State Airport, which the report says is about a ten-minute-long flight from downtown Baltimore.

The report states that, weather permitting, the Cessna would fly at about 8,000 feet for four to six hours, collecting about 1.3 terabytes worth of photos from a specially mounted camera known as the "Hawkeye II."

The Hawkeye integrates twelve cameras that can survey areas ranging from one to 6.8 miles wide.

In Baltimore, the plane typically "imaged" about 32 square miles every second in its respected Eastern and Western orbits, which the BPD based "on recent crime statistics."

The Cessna's images were sent through "air-to-ground data links," received by PSS's ground data station office, which was connected to police's networks like the CitiWatch cameras to support during live operations with two PSS analysts standing by within police's Watch Center.

The report explains, "When used in real time, the transmitted images allowed analysts to concentrate on the areas in question and quickly follow movements of people and vehicles around the event location. There was no automated tracking, and analysts were trained to follow these movements manually. When doing so, analysts marked the area movements with various colored lines, referred to as tracks. Multiple tracks typically emerged, as analysts looked at the movement of people and vehicles. The analysts relayed any critical information on movements to BPD officers in-the-field as the event was taking place. The analysts could also access CitiWatch cameras in real-time for detailed images to support communications with the field officers. Analysts tracked the events as long as possible for live operations" and built investigative briefings quickly delivered to officers involved to help identify suspects and witnesses.

Interestingly, the report makes clear that the PSS technology is not that of military systems, and clarifies that personal attributes like height, weight, skin or hair color or clothing, "are not discernible," nor car plates, makes and models. The report instead asserts that "these blurry dots" are "only useful for marking location and movement in one second intervals." (Though it does add that "Analyzing many, many hours of video, correlating existing data or knowledge and extrapolating observations from specific locations might also increase the confidence level of the inferred identification," but says this through tracking of a specific subject wasn't carried out by BPD or PSS).

So what happens to all those hours of recorded surveillance?

Accordingly, Baltimore Police never retained or stored the data and PSS maintained the servers where it would be stored for 45 days. After that, the footage was archived in a "secure server and moved to a secure safe. As the data is "removed from the server it is copied and stored in classified safes in both Baltimore and Ohio to ensure data integrity and reliability. Officers can request access to the data using the BPD “Form 371–Video Retrieval Request” form, which is the same form they use to request CitiWatch Camera data."

Following a move by the city's Public Defender's Office, PSS archived all collected data in case the Public Defender should need to use it.

"As of January 2017, PSS does not have a timeline for the destruction of this specific data, and anticipates to store it indefinitely," the report finds.

Each recommendation listed in the report will be evaluated by police leadership members who say they’ll “work on plans to implement should we adopt this technology.”

Meanwhile, the statement released by police in response wraps up by saying, “In the coming days, we will continue to comb through this report and make a thoughtful decision in the future about the use of this technology.”

To read the full report, click here.

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