The Future

Why some Baltimore residents are lobbying to bring back aerial surveillance

A handful of Baltimoreans are willing to try anything to stop their police force from killing them, and one technologist is only too happy to help.
The Future

Why some Baltimore residents are lobbying to bring back aerial surveillance

A handful of Baltimoreans are willing to try anything to stop their police force from killing them, and one technologist is only too happy to help.

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 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.)

The interface for the aerial drone footage captured by Persistent Surveillance Systems.

The interface for the aerial drone footage captured by Persistent Surveillance Systems.

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.

However, privacy experts have expressed concern about the activities of PSS for years. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and McNutt met to discuss PSS in October 2013. McNutt explained PSS’s privacy measures to the ACLU and sought recommendations and an endorsement. The ACLU declined to endorse the company, years before the trial in Baltimore, citing that no privacy policy would justify empowering the police to track any individual at any moment.

The PSS privacy policy currently states that the company deletes images from its server 45 days after capturing. But if PSS hands over images to the police, they keep backup files on thumb drives stored in a file cabinets. When the police receive data from PSS, they archive and store the data indefinitely.

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.

McNutt said that PSS analysts are not allowed to use company data for personal or private purposes. “We don’t let you come in and see whether or not your ex-wife is dating somebody,” he said. “It has to be associated with a legal action of some sort. And it’s basically a criminal-type action. So we believe that it should be open to defense attorneys who are asking questions.” After meeting with Stanley, PSS created a data access log. So if PSS leadership suspects that an employee broke company policy, they can check what data the employee accessed and when. The company’s privacy policy also forbids the use of the technology for less-severe or nonviolent crimes, at least for the purpose of policing; PSS has sold Baltimore traffic data to automobile insurance companies (this is also not without controversy: the city has one of the most-expensive average automobile insurance rates in the state of Maryland).

“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].”
Joyous Jones

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.

A demo of the resolution of the Hawkeye II, PSS’s aerial surveillance camera.

A demo of the resolution of the Hawkeye II, PSS’s aerial surveillance camera.

Communities of color in Baltimore are already heavily surveilled by law enforcement-controlled cameras. A series of city street cameras collects footage around the clock. The data from these cameras is publicly available, and signs around West Baltimore and other areas of the city inform citizens that they’re under surveillance by these cameras.

Rikki Spector, a former city council member and current member of Community With Solutions, said to The Outline that she sees PSS as a way to potentially keep innocent people out of jail. “If there is something going on, we can be ruled out as suspects,” Spector said. “We have many people that are currently incarcerated because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they fit that description.��

Still, experts have argued that this technology can enable its own form of profiling. Jeremy Gillula, the tech policy director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that location data is just as sensitive and personally identifying as data when you can see a person’s face, race, gender, and age.

“There are only so many people that will be leaving your house at a certain time in the morning,” Gillula said. “It’ll be you or someone in your family, and you can know that with pretty high certainty, and then you can track that person all day long, wherever they go. You can gather all types of personal information, like what church did they attend? Are they visiting political gatherings? Did they go to the doctor that has a specialty? Do we know that they have medical conditions that they don’t want the world to know about?”

McNutt said that since the data surveillance drones would collect can be obtained out in the open, it’s not only legal, but ethical and fair to do so. “Everything we do is out in the public domain,” he told The Outline. “We’re following people along sidewalks and city streets where there is no expectation of privacy, and the only people we follow are people coming and going from major crime scenes or related investigations.”

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.”
Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst

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.”

Tracking a crime in progress with Persistent Surveillance Systems.

Tracking a crime in progress with Persistent Surveillance Systems.

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.

“It's not just surveillance. It's not just police surveillance,” Spence said. “Policing becomes a logic that bleeds out and extends from the police into a number of different areas of life,” Spence said.

For some community activists in Baltimore, police misconduct is a primary factor driving their opposition to PSS. Out For Justice Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more resources to be provided to ex-convicts as they reenter society, told The Outline saying that it is  “extremely concerned” about the prospect of aerial surveillance returning to Baltimore.

“We know that on-the-ground policing has a disproportionate impact on black and brown communities, so why would this police tactic be any different?” the statement reads. “The stakeholders who would eventually profit off of this endeavor are telling us that the plane could be used to watch the police, but why should we trust that when the plane’s [data] would be in the police's hands?”

McNutt, who is white, argues that the aim of PSS is to save black victims of crime and homicide. “It’s 90 percent black males being killed in Baltimore, and it is a shame that people just don't seem to care. We think those lives matter,” McNutt said. “I can understand their frustrations with the police. My frustration is as I drive around these communities to all these locations, almost every street I know somebody and shot because I watched it.”

But, although the entire city was surveilled in its Baltimore trail run, the vast majority of crimes that PSS investigated were committed in areas of the city that are disproportionately home to people of color.

McNutt said that he’s conducted 25 community meetings in city churches and recreational centers across Baltimore in an attempt to get the city residents on board, and he emphasized that monitoring the police is central to his new mission. Williams told The Outline that he was initially upset when he found out that PSS was conducting secret surveillance, but decided to attend one of McNutt’s presentations at his local church in spring 2017. “I was kind of skeptical because I thought this was another tool to be used against my people,” Williams said.

Surveilling the police wasn’t a part of the original implementation of PSS, but a feature that McNutt added in his attempt to rebrand the service for Baltimore. The PSS website refers to its campaign to come back to Baltimore as the “Community Support Program,” and has a separate website dedicated specifically to selling the service to the city. (The Community Support Program is an extension of PSS, unlike Community With Solutions, which is a private citizen advocacy group.)

Williams was ultimately convinced by the promise that the police would be surveilled as well. “People that look like myself benefit from [PSS],” Williams said. “Our city leadership is not holding these police accountable.” But he also said that certain members of his community have expressed frustration and disbelief about his support for PSS.

Their comments are that I’m helping a racist.

“Their comments are that I’m helping a racist,” Williams said. “Ross is nowhere near a racist, and Ross has been called Hitler out of ignorance. I’ve been called Uncle Tom, I’ve been called the mayor’s puppy. Just ignorance. So sometimes you just let people talk.”

Not everyone is convinced that PSS will be able to hold police accountable. Spence said algorithmic policing could be useful, but only if it didn’t advantage law enforcement, and if it made access to information equal on the sides of both citizens and police. “So when you tell me that a community person would have to file a request, that automatically makes it asymmetric,” he said. “[But] just like we know what the crime hotspots are, we should we should know what the police brutality hotspots are.”

Stanley of the ACLU also noted that private surveillance companies, including but not limited to PSS, are accountable to contract holders. “The’re going to be responsive to the bureaucratic entities that are gonna be paying them, which means police departments rather than communities as a whole,” Stanley said. “And we saw that with the way that even though McNutt wanted to go public with the Baltimore trial, he didn’t because the police didn’t want him to.”

The $360,000 bill to PSS for its 90-day trial-run in Baltimore was footed by the personal estate of Laura and John Arnold, according to McNutt (John Arnold, a Texas resident, earned his multi-million dollar fortune as a natural gas hedge fund manager). McNutt said that a private investor has offered to pay for PSS service if it returns to Baltimore, but declined to clarify if this investor is John Arnold, or how long this investor offered to fund PSS operations. It would cost $1.6 million per year for PSS to operate in Baltimore.

Still, it’s not that the people of the Community With Solutions are more trustful of the police than the general population of Baltimore. They understand the scope of the problem firstand.

“I’ve witnessed police officers taking money. I’ve witnessed police officers beating the heck out of a gentleman: pull him out of an alley, beat him with sticks, and throw him back in the truck. I’ve seen the police undress a man and make him pull his pants down in front of everybody on this street to expose everything to see if he had drugs on him. I’ve seen them jump out of the car and put a gun to somebody's head just for no reason,” Jones said. “I’ve witnessed that with my own eyes.”

With aerial surveillance technology, Jones believes that indisputable evidence could be presented in a courtroom and give way to fair punishments for police that use excessive force and abuse their privileges on the job.

“The eye in the sky becomes that witness,” Jones said. “Unbiased, nonpartisan. It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with a Democrat or a Republican. It has to do with solving a crime.”But she admitted that larger changes to the Baltimore police department will be slow to come.

But Sarah Igo, a professor of history at the University of Vanderbilt who has written about the history of privacy in the U.S., told The Outline that she fears that aerial surveillance will be implemented as a solution to police misconduct, without addressing systemic problems with the policing system.

“The situation — in terms of crime and Baltimore, or in terms of racial profiling and policing — is so severe that it is making people who would normally decry this kind of surveillance desperate for some kind of all-seeing-eye,” Igo said, “because the regular mechanisms of good policing, crime reduction, and community outreach don’t seem to be working.”

In multiple phone conversations with The Outline, McNutt emphasized PSS’s express purpose is not stopping crime, but preventing it from happening in the first place.

“The bigger part though is that deterrence aspect. By solving those otherwise unsolvable crimes, and having a higher conviction rate, and having it very public — how we did it — we hope to be able to deter the kids and the other deterrable people,” McNutt said. For this reason, McNutt said that he found the lack of transparency about the use of PSS in Baltimore was incredibly frustrating. A tool can’t deter crime if citizens don’t know it’s being used in the first place.

PSS doesn’t currently have planes flying in Baltimore. But if the program were to come back, Community With Solutions would like McNutt to speak to police officers, as well as schools of young children in the Baltimore area, and demonstrate PSS technology in use using old data. Williams told The Outline that he hopes to speak to schoolchildren if this occurs, since he personally finished a 13-year sentence five years ago. “There are children out here shooting children,” Williams said. “By me going to the schools and letting the system be seen and known, it will make the children think about some things.”

Spence told The Outline that surveillance technology demonstrations in schools would treat economically disadvantaged children of color as suspects of a crime without having committed one. “For that population that [is treated like they] can’t surveil themselves, that can’t govern themselves, whether it’s in the school system or the world, it’s like we need to have systems of surveillance to track them,” Spence said.

Igo said that public education about a new technology does not always translate to active awareness that it’s in use. “These technologies that initially alarm people often get naturalized or normalize quite easily, and that is especially the case I would say when it seems to have social benefits that are meeting certain kinds of social needs,” Igo said. “Partly because they're invisible, but also because people get used to things… If they’re not actually personally affected by these technologies, it seems sort of abstract.”

If a camera 25 feet above people’s heads does not deter crime, how then can an airplane do any better?

Johnson from the Baltimore Black Think Tank said that he doubts that PSS would effectively deter crime in the city. “There are areas that have cameras; one corner in particular, Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue, has 33 surveillance cameras on buildings and lamp posts 25 feet above people’s heads,” Johnson said. “This area has become one of the most notorious open-air drug markets. If a camera 25 feet above people’s heads does not deter crime, how then can an airplane do any better?”

Williams estimated that Community With Solutions has collected several hundred signatures, both online and on-paper, in support of reinstating aerial surveillance, but the group was unable to provide The Outline with documentation. Williams said, the group has met with seven of the Baltimore city council members and they all expressed support for the idea, with the exception Baltimore City Council members Ryan Dorsey and Brandon Scott.  

When contacted by The Outline, Dorsey and Scott, as well as Baltimore City Council members Mary Pat Clarke claimed that she did not support re-introducing PSS into the city, and Eric Costello claimed he did not have a position on the issue. The remaining city council members, including mayor Catherine Pugh, did not respond to request for comment.

“The mayor says that she's fully supportive of it,” McNutt claimed. “The City Council says ‘we’ll be happy to stand behind the mayor when she announces it,’ and that's where we've sat for the last four and a half months. And in that time, 130 people have been murdered.”

When asked how the Baltimore city council wants Community With Solutions to demonstrate widespread support for PSS, no one from the group had an answer. It’s not clear whether PSS will actually return to Baltimore, but according to McNutt, the Cessna airplanes owned by PSS remain at Martin State Airport, a civil-military facility just outside of Baltimore.

It’s also not clear how often data from technology borne of warfare would be used by city police departments around the U.S. and insurance companies looking to microtarget disadvantaged populations. McNutt said that he has spoken to representatives from cities Stockton, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Miami-Dade, and Boston, as well as countries like Honduras, but declined to say whether there are any written agreements to introduce PSS. McNutt claimed that in the future, he will not introduce PSS to a new American city without ensuring that the public will be informed beforehand.

Stanley of the ACLU told The Outline that it’s crucial to remember that PSS is in a marketplace with many similar companies — like Aerial Surveillance Systems, Inc. and AGB Investigative Services, Inc., which specializes in drones — and we’ve only seen the beginning of their implementation.

“I’d also emphasize that it’s not about PSS; it’s not about this one company,” Stanley said. “It’s about that industry, this technology, the logic of the competition, and a bureaucratic imperative to monitor everybody. If PSS ends up being successful, then other competitors will enter the market. And if PSS stands on principle, then its competitors will undercut him by crossing those lines.”