Three Spy Planes Could Soon Be Flying Over Baltimore To Counter Murder Crisis

Earlier this month, we reported how Gov. Larry Hogan pledged $21 million to assist Baltimore City in their efforts to stop the spread of the murder crisis. Hogan also endorsed the use of a controversial surveillance plane program that would fly thousands of feet above to record every movement of people and vehicles in the city.

Now The Baltimore Sun is reporting that three spy planes could soon be flying overhead, in a $6.6 million surveillance program that would be entirely funded by outside donors for three years. 

The Sun obtained emails from Ross McNutt of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems and officials in Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young's office that expressed support in the program. 

Each plane has sensors that can monitor up to 32 square miles at a time, and each would fly 45 to 50 hours a week, McNutt said. 

"With these three coverage areas, we would be able to cover areas that include 80 to 90 percent of the murders and shootings in Baltimore," McNutt wrote in an email last month to Sheryl Goldstein, Young's deputy chief of staff.

As early as 2015, we reported that Persistent Surveillance Systems was flying a Cessna 182T Skylane over the streets of Baltimore during the riots. It turned out the plane was a secret FBI aerial surveillance program.

In a follow-up piece, "Meet The FBI's Secret Eye In The Sky Overseeing The Baltimore Riots," we postulated that the spy plane monitoring the riots may have been equipped with night vision equipment provided by Persistent Surveillance Systems, a company which has worked with the Baltimore Police Department in the past. Here's a schematic (via WaPo):

The funding for the $6.6 million surveillance program would be covered by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, who also funded the 2016 pilot program. 

"While we have not formally committed to additional funding, we have expressed significant interest in a proposal to restart the program if it has support from Baltimore city leaders and the broader community," John Arnold said. "We will wait to see a formal proposal before making a firm commitment."

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison met with McNutt last month about the spy planes - no decision on the program has been made.

Council President Brandon Scott has been a supporter of the program but has mentioned that when the plane flew in 2016 - there was no meaningful evidence that it reduced murders.

As we noted several weeks ago, Baltimore is on track for record homicides this year, expected to surpass the 300th mark in the near term.

Supporters of the spy plane program "see it as the best thing for Baltimore, and they don't want to see Baltimore miss out on this opportunity," McNutt said. "It's personal to them."

Millie Brown, the founder of Tears of a Mother's Cry, an organization that supports mothers who have lost children to gun violence, said she is "110 percent behind" McNutt's spy plane program.

"Having the eye in the sky is a no-brainer with all of the bloodshed that we have in our city. We have someone that's offered to pay for it," Brown said. "There are so many murders and robberies that could have been solved if we would have had that plane up in the sky."

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, warned against the return of the spy plane program. 

"What was one plane is now three, and the coverage is, instead of half the city, the entire city, and the duration of surveillance is now the entirety of the daylight hours, essentially," he said. "What is being created is the permanent surveillance of everywhere that everyone in Baltimore goes every time they walk out the door. That has always been the design and intent and this further clarifies it. And that is something that simply should never be done in a free country, period."

Earlier this month Rocah condemned McNutt's lobbying effort.

"It's being pushed by people outside of Baltimore," Rocah said. "It's a cynical attempt to use the failings of public safety in Baltimore as a government power grab. There's nothing more despicable than that."

The possible resurrection of the spy plane program, and the tripling of its size, comes as the city is imploding on itself, suffering from a murders crisis, opioid epidemic, a wide gap in wealth/health/education inequalities, and deindustrialization. 

We said this earlier this month, and we'll repeat it for the second or third time: "There's no meaningful policy in place to turn Baltimore around in the next decade. So in the meantime, if you value your life, stay away from Baltimore."