City Council members plan to call in Baltimore police to explain why officials did not disclose they were using a private company to fly surveillance missions collecting and storing footage of wide swaths of the city.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, public safety committee chairman Warren Branch and vice chairman Brandon Scott are among those planning a hearing on the matter "as soon as possible," said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young.
The council members say they aren't necessarily opposed to the surveillance operation — which has the potential to help catch everything from gun crimes to police misconduct — but believe such monitoring of the public's movements should be vetted by taxpayers.
"When you're dealing with the public's trust, you have to have transparency," Davis said, adding that police brass now understand the need to make the program public. "Obviously a mistake was made, and I think they acknowledge that."
Unlike other high-profile surveillance tactics — such as body cameras and pole cameras — the surveillance plane was not disclosed publicly. The police didn't brief Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"She was not briefed on the program at its inception, but strongly believes in full disclosure," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. McCarthy said the mayor learned of the plane's existence only "recently," but would not be more specific. Bloomberg Businessweek on Tuesday published an article first reporting the existence of the surveillance operations.
By contrast, the police department's body camera program was the subject of news conferences, legislation, a task force, a series of public meetings and public procurement process.
Davis said Young was "surprised" to learn of the surveillance operations.
"He wants to hear about the program," Davis said. The police will be called to provide a "full accounting of the program, what it's done, and what's going on with it."
"We haven't had a public accounting of the program," Davis said. "The chair and the vice chair of the public safety committee will be working to make that happen as soon as possible."
Branch said he was scheduling an "oversight" meeting of the police after conferring with Scott.
"The commissioner keeps talking about transparency, but every time we turn around, there's something else where we're left on the outside," Branch said. "It's the way this administration has always handled things. They never reach out. You have to pull information out of the administration."
Scott said the oversight hearing would focus on the surveillance plane, but also the recent Department of Justice report that found discriminatory policing practices in Baltimore and the city's persistently high violent crime rate.
"We're going to talk about this plane but also crime and the Department of Justice report," Scott said. He said the hearing would be in September.
Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems has for months been testing sophisticated surveillance cameras aboard a small Cessna airplane flying high above the city. The arrangement was kept secret in part because it never appeared before the city's spending board, paid for instead through private donations handled by the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation.
The company conducted 100 hours of surveillance in January and February and 200 hours of surveillance between June and this month, police said Wednesday. It will continue conducting surveillance for another several weeks before the Police Department evaluates its effectiveness and decides whether to continue the program.
Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the plane's cameras can record footage of 32 square miles of the city. He compared the program to an expansion of the city's existing CitiWatch system of street-level cameras.
When crime cameras were first installed in Baltimore in 2005 under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, they numbered fewer than 200 and were largely confined to high-crime areas. The city's network has grown to 696, including cameras at the East Baltimore Development Inc. project and surrounding the Horseshoe Casino.
Two years ago, city officials announced they were expanding their public surveillance network to include private security cameras that could potentially quadruple the number of digital eyes on neighborhoods.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in a statement that CitiWatch cameras have resulted in an average decline in crime of 33 percent in the small areas near each camera. He said an expansion of digital surveillance is needed in a city where there were nearly 1,000 shootings and a record high in homicides last year.
"At a time when 84% of our homicides occur in outdoor public spaces, it seems logical to explore opportunities to capture the brazen killers who don't think twice about gunning down their victims on our streets," Davis said. "Indeed, 43% of this year's killing have occurred in 'broad daylight' hours, an apparent gesture of impunity by trigger pullers who expect not to be revealed."
Even so, Davis said, the surveillance plane program remains in a testing phase.
"We do not know yet if our examination of this technology will result in a recommendation to permanently pursue it, but promise a robust and inclusive community conversation," he said.