Aerial Surveillance Returns: Debate over its effectiveness continues and documents show the spy plane captured a police shooting in 2016

An diagram shows how aerial surveillance works / Courtesy MPIA

The secret surveillance plane that flew over Baltimore throughout 2016 is coming back—and this time, at least, it won’t be a secret.

“I’m here today to announce a pilot program for the aerial surveillance in Baltimore,” Commissioner Michael Harrison said at a morning press conference. “As you probably know, I firmly believe in focusing on evidence-based and data-driven strategies when it comes to implementing new programs, new approaches, and new technologies in law enforcement.”

For those who do not know, the plane, with a dozen cameras on it, flies 8,500 feet above the city and records 30 square miles at a time. The resolution is not very high and it can only be used during the day, but the footage it records can be accessed, rewound, and fast-forwarded later on. 

The information gleaned from reviewing the footage is then compared with information from other cameras—such as Citiwatch—or incorporated into on-the-ground investigations. In this video, the plane’s creator, Ross McNutt of Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), describes how the plane was used to identify a shooter in Juarez, Mexico. He has long argued it can be used the same way in Baltimore.

“We will be the first American city to use this technology in an attempt to solve and deter violent crime,” Harrison said proudly.

The pilot program will determine if the surveillance plane will be used by the Baltimore Police Department in the long-term, Harrison said. Still, the return of this source ongoing controversy is a sign for local organizers of more of the same from the Baltimore Police.

“The answer to solving crime is building trust and addressing the root causes of crime such as employment, housing, wrap around services, mental health services, et.cetera, not turning Baltimore into a police state and treating its citizens as if their rights can be taken away any day by our public officials,” Tre Murphy of Black Leaders Organizing For Change (BLOC) said. “The community doesn’t trust BDP—this is yet another reason why.” 

Another Test Run

At the press conference, Harrison explained that the surveillance plane would be back in flight in May of next year. It would fly for 120–180 days as part of a round of testing to determine the plane’s effectiveness in helping to solve homicides and robberies.

In 2016, when the plane first flew, it was determined not to be particularly effective. That—along with the privacy concerns that come with a plane flying above the city and recording everyone all of the time—has been the argument against trying the plane again.

At a Public Safety Committee hearing about the plane in 2018, then-councilperson (and now council president and mayoral candidate) Brandon Scott said, “We all know in this body that if you guys were closing homicide after homicide after homicide when this plane was up, the police department would’ve come in with that data ready to go.”

After this morning’s announcement, Scott released a public statement about the plane: “We need solutions that work, and Commissioner Harrison has told the City Council multiple times this year, as recently as October, that there is no evidence the surveillance plane is an effective crime-fighting tool. BPD recently testified that, in the time the surveillance plane was secretly used in Baltimore, it yielded zero pieces of evidence that could be used to fight crime.” Scott’s statement continues: “A spy plane in the sky might make some of us feel safer, but it is not a proven crime-fighting tool. We know this.”

The spy plane’s return coincides with critiques of Harrison’s crime plan and a serious effort by Baltimore’s business leaders to push Mayor Jack Young to support the plane (and with that push, as Adam Johnson of The Appeal reported, a deceptive poll claiming overwhelming support for the plane).

Transparency This Time

Harrison stressed that the surveillance plane’s use would be “transparent” this time around and a rather perfunctory statement by Mayor Jack Young reinforced that talking point: “The process the Commissioner has outlined is transparent and includes necessary community engagement and auditing functions,” Young’s statement said.

The Baltimore Sun reported that despite Harrison’s appeals to transparency this morning, both the Office of the Public Defender and the State’s Attorney’s Office were not made aware of the decision to relaunch the plane before this morning’s announcement.

In 2016, the plane was flown entirely in secret and only acknowledged publicly after Bloomberg Businessweek published “Secret Cameras Record Baltimore’s Every Move.” Even then, the Baltimore Police Department, including then-BPD spokesperson and current mayoral candidate T.J. Smith (who has expressed support for the surveillance plane), claimed that the plane did not need to be disclosed by BPD in the first place.

“There was no conspiracy not to disclose it,” Smith said at the time.

As I reported back in 2016 for Baltimore City Paper, while McNutt went along with keeping the plane secret in 2016, communications between McNutt and members of the Baltimore Police Department obtained via public information request showed that McNutt pushed BPD to disclose the program. His requests were ignored.

This morning, Harrison described the pilot program as “trying a new thing for the first time,” which is not exactly true. Besides the plane’s secret use in Baltimore in 2016, the plane had previously flown in Compton in 2012—also in secret. When residents found out about it, they protested and the program was cancelled. After that, the plane was offered to Dayton, Ohio police, but activists loudly opposed the use of the plane and it never got off the ground.

In 2020, the plane’s use will at least be more transparent than in the past through public meetings, a memorandum of understanding between the city and PSS, and an “independent third party auditing team.”

Spying On The Past

Harrison detailed some adjustments to how the plane will be used during this pilot program.

It will only investigate “past events,” Harrison said, so the footage will no longer be viewed in real time. In 2016, the plane was sometimes directed to the location of a crime not long after it occurred and was also used to monitor protests. But the majority of the plane’s usage in 2020 will be the same as it was in 2016: with analysts following up on crimes and going through the footage to see if the plane caught anything.

The plane’s “video feeds,” Harrison said, “will not be directly accessible by Baltimore Police Department officers—instead the company supplying the planes will provide us with evidence packages that are specific to incidents that have already been reported.” In other words, a private company has full access to the plane’s recorded video—not exactly comforting to those concerned about the use and abuse of surveillance by individuals in the public and private sector.

And only “the most serious offenses, specifically murders, shootings, armed robberies, including car jackings,” will be investigated using the plane, Harrison stressed. But during the press conference, Harrison said that if, for example, it was shown the plane was effective, it could later be used to solve other kinds of crime—a sexual assault, for example.

“If by chance there happens to be a rape and we find that it could be used for that, well then that’s something that we have to talk about,” Harrison said. “It could evolve to that.”

This confirms criticisms from David Rocah of the American Civil Liberties Union Maryland (ACLU MD), a longtime critic of the plane who has stressed that the plane’s investigative abilities being capped or limited by police once they begin using the plane is unlikely. 

Although the plane was promoted as a way to investigate violent crimes—specifically murders— in 2016, a number of lesser crimes, including illegal dumping and hit-and-runs were captured and it was used to track dirt bikes by the Dirt Bike Violator Task Force. Some of those lesser crimes were part of PSS’s evidence that the plane was a success.

Another negative Harrison cast as a positive: It won’t cost the city of Baltimore anything. John and Laura Arnold, a Texas billionaire couple who also funded the 2016 flights (by donating money to the Baltimore Community Foundation and later, the Police Foundation, which then passed the money to the police, who then paid PSS) will be funding this pilot program. 

The Arnolds will fund the pilot program through Arnold Ventures, a corporation the couple established earlier this year which, as Vox reported, makes it easier for them to give their money to whoever they want (rather than only nonprofits). Media-averse since their involvement with the surveillance plane was revealed, the Arnolds now have a media contact of their own, and sent over a statement today.

“At Arnold Ventures, we seek evidence-based solutions to our nation’s most complex challenges. We support the City of Baltimore as it confronts its public safety crisis and pursues innovative strategies to ensure the well-being of its citizens,” a statement from John Arnold said. “By funding a limited-duration pilot and a fully independent evaluation, we hope to learn whether this technology can be a useful part of Baltimore’s crime reduction strategy. We appreciate Commissioner Harrison’s leadership on this project and his efforts to conduct an open conversation about how best to serve the citizens of Baltimore.”

As first reported by David Pontious’ Baltimore Bulletin newsletter, the Arnolds held a fundraiser in Houston for mayoral candidate Thiru Vignarajah, who supports the surveillance plane.

A Police Shooting Captured By The Spy Plane

A page from PSS’s evidence packet for Jawan Richards’ shooting

Harrison also said that during the pilot program at least, the plane would not be used to investigate Baltimore Police Department.

After potential public support for the plane was squandered by 2016’s decision to keep it secret, McNutt began repitching the surveillance plane in 2018 as a way to catch dirty cops in the act. McNutt went right to community organizers and neighborhood associations. Following the 2017 Gun Trace Task Force scandal in which Baltimore Police officers were federally indicted for stealing money, dealing drugs, planting guns, and other abuses of power, this appealed to some Baltimoreans.

Briefly the plane was reconsidered, though that collapsed after a disastrous 2018 hearing by the Public Safety Committee where it was shown McNutt misrepresented community support (one of its most vocal supporters, Archie Williams, had been paid by McNutt).

When McNutt was promoting his plane as a way to catch crooked cops, he told me that the plane had potentially already caught some police misconduct: During one of its early 2016 flights, the plane captured police shooting a man in West Baltimore. 

On January 27, 2016, near the 3400 block of Piedmont Avenue a little after 1 p.m., two unmarked police cars, one driven by Det. Robert Hankard with Det. Tarik Toro-Munford in the passenger seat, and another car driven by Det. Ryan Hill with Det. Carmine Vignola in the passenger seat, stopped a man named Jawan Richards. At the time, they said Richards was not wearing his seatbelt. Toro-Munford also said he recognized Richards from previous encounters.

Richards, the police said, rammed into their unmarked police cars with his SUV and tried to escape, striking Hankard’s car and Hankard himself. Both Hankard and Vignola fired at Richards and Richards was shot in the neck. One of the bullets went through the windshield of Richards’ SUV.  Police said they recovered a small amount of cannabis and a gun from Richards and Richards eventually pleaded guilty to a number of gun and assault charges.

Last year, McNutt told me what he saw watching the spy plane footage of the Richards shooting. 

“The officers stop, blocking him in, they jump out of the car,” McNutt said. “The real question is why did the officers stop?…Obviously the guy wouldn’t throw it in reverse if the [police’s] door hadn’t been opened…Why would you jump out on a guy not wearing a seat belt?”

In May 2016, Hankard and Vignola were cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting. Because of a conflict of interest within Baltimore’s State’s Attorney’s Office, the police shooting was investigated by the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office instead. McNutt told me he received pushback from Carroll County when he told them, months after the cops were cleared, that the shooting was captured by his plane. Documents show McNutt corresponded with Carroll County in September 2016 about the plane and the Richards shooting and in October 2016, Carroll County informed Richards’ lawyers about PSS’s findings. Carroll County also said they viewed PSS’s evidence packet (which only contains still images) disagreed with PSS’s claims that there were discrepancies.

“The non-Baltimore prosecutor was hyper once it was discovered that we had information on the shooting,” McNutt told me last year. “I would be very interested if it was anyone from the GTTF.”

More than three years later, it seems as though McNutt was onto something. Vignola, one of the officers involved in the shooting has plead guilty to lying to a grand jury due to his involvement in an 2014 incident related to GTTF.

On March 26, 2014, Vignola, a still-unnamed officer (identified only as “Rob” in Vignola’s guilty plea), and Sgt. Keith Gladstone helped GTTF sergeant Wayne Jenkins plant a BB gun on Demetric Simon, a man Jenkins had just run over. Documents related to Richards’ shooting identify Gladstone as Vignola’s supervisor.

According to the evidence packet prepared by PSS, what the plane shows partially conflicts with the police version of events. “Observed vehicle behavior matches BPD story of vehicle backing into officers but not into officers [sic] vehicle. Officers [sic] vehicle was in front of suspect car,” it reads.

The report also notes that initially, Richards pulled to the side, “into [a] shovelled [sic] parking spot [to] allow the two cars (Officers) to pass,” and it was only once he pulled into the parking spot that the interaction with police began.

That the evidence packet even suggested a possible discrepancy between the police version of events and what McNutt and his analysts saw should have piqued police interest, McNutt told me last year: “I was amazed how disinterested they were in an officer involved shooting.”

“It is an egregious insult to the citizens of Baltimore to put a constant surveillance plane that’s gonna operate 24-7 in the sky, to essentially track everybody’s movement and not call Baltimore a police state,” BLOC’s Murphy said when he learned of the 2016 shooting captured by the plane. “It’s an even bigger slap in the face when we can have the very person behind the spy plane give evidence that shows the discrepancies in a police involved incident—and those discrepancies have not been exposed to the public before now—and shows, to some extent, that the evidence itself was willfully ignored.”

A Public Way

On the phone today, McNutt said he did not know if Commissioner Harrison specifically knew about the 2016 police shooting captured by the spy plane. The Baltimore Police Department, he said, do know about it, and have had the evidence packet created by PSS since 2016.

“We told them we have it, they know we have it, they have not pushed it,” McNutt said this morning over the phone, a few minutes after the press conference ended.

McNutt talked to me while he was driving around the Florida Keys today. Not exactly an ideal time for BPD to announce the launch of a program he had been fighting to get into an American city for nearly a decade, he joked, but nevertheless, he was effusive about Harrison’s announcement.

“We are hoping to do this in a public way this time,” McNutt said. “There’s a whole lot of work to be done.”

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