Last month, Baltimore’s moratorium on facial recognition expired. Despite concerns about the effectiveness of the technology and research showing the technology has been linked to the over-policing of Black people, the Baltimore City Council allowed the moratorium, put in place in mid-2021, to end.
“There isn’t political will to maintain a permanent ban,” said Kristerfer Burnett, Baltimore City councilperson. He tried and failed to get his colleagues to stop facial recognition software from ever being used in Baltimore.
As the city eclipsed 300 homicides for the eighth consecutive year, arguing against the expansion of surveillance has become harder. According to Burnett, many on the council have bought into the idea that to address the city’s violent crime, Baltimore needs even more tools at its disposal. So Baltimore will now allow city residents and businesses to begin using the technology, broadening the digital dragnet already in place.
“I have likened it to a virtual stop and frisk,” Burnett said.
This move comes despite strong evidence that facial recognition software does a poor job of recognizing the faces of Black and darker-complected people and studies showing that the use of biometric data in policing led to more arrests of Black people and fewer arrests of white people. And it comes on the heels of the Baltimore City Board of Estimates approving the $920,000 purchase to upgrade its cell phone tracking system. The portable system tricks cell phones within its range to connect to it like they would a cell tower. The cops can record the phone numbers and the location of the cell phones it connects with, as well as the numbers of incoming and outgoing calls and text messages.
The sunsetting of the moratorium and the recent upgrade of a cell phone tracking system have also alarmed activists. They fear this data can and will be abused by the Baltimore Police Department.
“The Baltimore Police Department is under a consent decree because they have shown a pattern of violating the constitutional rights of Black residents of Baltimore,” said Rob Ferrell, senior organizer with Organizing Black, a Baltimore grassroots organization.
Yet a concerted push for more surveillance — part of an effort to give law enforcement more tools to fight crime — appears to be the play both locally and across the nation. In his State of the Union speech in March, President Joe Biden said, “The answer is not defund the police. It’s to fund the police.” His statement was applauded by Republicans and more conservative Democrats. And in the fall, the midterm elections served as a referendum on the economy and the perceived increase in crime.
“If we are going to be incredibly specific, crime has been on a downward trend for 30 years,” said Samantha Master, communications manager for Organizing Black.“I’m actually tired of the high crime narrative and the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ messaging from the media.”
Still, the narrative has been repeated enough that it has helped shape national ideas and policies toward law enforcement and public safety. That narrative has always driven local politics.
Baltimore spends more per capita on policing than any city in the nation. As a result, the department has created a broad-reaching surveillance program. The agency contracted with a company that flew a spy plane over Baltimore until city officials ended the contract in February 2021, months before a judge ruled the plane’s use unconstitutional. A network of cameras on private properties connects to the CitiWatch network. And the police department regularly monitors social media accounts and even operates fake accounts to lure in suspects.
“The technology, whether it is the spy plane, or the cell phone tracker, or facial recognition, is not set up to operate like a search and seizure of an individual. It’s more of a dragnet,” Ferrell said.
And it’s that broad capture that worries so many.
“If you come in contact with these cameras, your face will be captured. It will be used. There’s nothing people can do about it,” Master said. “This is just investing in new toys. So more cops can feel like they have more things at their disposal to trip folks up.”
The Baltimore Police Department pushed hard against the moratorium, even though the moratorium has never specifically applied to the organization. The agency lobbied hard for facial recognition software and other surveillance measures, claiming the moratorium stopped the agency from acquiring technology that it believes would help solve more crimes and clear more homicides.
That’s a pretty bold claim for technology that has a hard time recognizing Black faces, especially Black women’s faces, and would be deployed in a city that is more than 60 percent Black.
“I am not convinced these technologies, the stingray, facial recognition technology, the spy plane, and ShotSpotter, are making the city safer,” Burnett said.
Ferrell and others have pushed hard for city leaders to shift resources away from police to social services, education, and job creation, which they say are more sound investments in making Baltimore safer. They backed Mayor Brandon Scott, who, as a candidate, pledged to cut funding to the police department and went as far as pushing through a police budget cut during his last year on the city council. Scott made an about-face in his first year as mayor, adding $28 million to the police budget in 2021.
Surveillance cameras came under fire after the death of George Floyd, as facial recognition was implicated in instances of racial profiling by police agencies. IBM stopped selling its facial recognition software to policing agencies amid concerns about abuses by law enforcement.
For activists, the push for more surveillance in light of the potential for abuse and the lack of effectiveness of the technology speaks to how law enforcement is shifting its strategy in the face of political pushback to more obvious forms of tough-on-crime policing.
“This is the natural reaction to continue to scale up policing in ways that feel less nefarious to the common person because you can’t see it,” Ferrell said. “It’s not a cop on a beat with a baton, it’s cameras that are literally tracking your every movement. It’s literally a massive web of entrapment.”
Burnett, like the activist community, says he will continue to push the city to pour more resources into education, job programs, and alternatives outside of law enforcement that he and others believe lead to more durable public safety.
“Solely investing as much as we do in policing and surveillance hasn’t panned out. The tech and the investment in tech by the department hasn’t worked,” Burnett said. “For me, it’s about finding other ways to make the city safer for people in our community.”