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Lawsuit Blocks Baltimore From Launching Surveillance Plane Program to Investigate Crimes

Activists and ACLU lawyers succeeded in stopping a six-month trial run of an aerial surveillance program funded by private philanthropists.

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union has blocked the launch of a pilot program in Baltimore that would have allowed surveillance planes to help investigate crimes after they were reported.

Lawyers representing local activists concerned about their constitutional rights to not be searched without cause or freely associate with others were successful in obtaining a temporary injunction from a federal judge in Maryland, The New York Times reported. Richard D. Bennett ruled that the planes could not collect footage until he ruled on whether the program should not proceed while the case is still being considered.

Implementing an aerial surveillance program in Baltimore is unconstitutional and the most “wide-reaching surveillance dragnet ever employed in an American city,” said Brett Max Kaufman, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Center for Democracy.

“This technology is the equivalent to having a police officer follow you every time you leave the house,” Kaufman said in a statement, according to WBFF. “It presents a society-changing threat to everyone’s rights to privacy and free association, and we need to put a stop to it now.”

The lawsuit comes after the Baltimore Board of Estimates approved a six-month pilot program contract between the city and Arnold Ventures, a private philanthropy organization that offered to fund the planes, pilots, analysts and hangar space for the project, which aims to prevent and solve crime by capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours per week.

Police officers would not be able to use the footage in real time or for police chases, only having the option to request footage from a certain area and time period for investigation of a reported crime.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison was originally hesitant about the program last year, but has since voiced his support for a pilot program to test the effectiveness of the technology. He also noted that no one can be arrested solely based on the planes’ images and that data is deleted after 45 days unless needed for an investigation.

Local residents have expressed support for the measure as a way to address growing violent crime rates in the city, according to one poll conducted last fall. But local activists and residents who have signed onto the ACLU lawsuit say that Baltimore police should invest in community-building efforts within neighborhoods, not new surveillance technology. The police department has been harshly criticized for incidents of police abuse that have hurt community trust in law enforcement.

“Throughout our country’s history, federal agencies have worked in collaboration with local law enforcement to surveil political dissenters,” said plaintiff Dayvon Love, who works as the director of public policy for the think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. “We are adamantly opposed to a program that gives law enforcement new and improved tools to watch and potentially harm people who challenge the dominant social order and power structure.”

About the Author

Haley Samsel is an Associate Content Editor for the Infrastructure Solutions Group at 1105 Media.

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