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Baltimore’s aerial surveillance pilot program ends Saturday

October 31, 2020 GMT

BALTIMORE (AP) — An aerial surveillance system being tested in Baltimore amid opposition from a civil liberties organization will end Saturday.

The Baltimore Police Department told the Baltimore Sun that “all flight operations” for the pilot program will stop, but its effectiveness will continue to be studied by third parties. The analysis of the images gathered by the surveillance cameras will also continue after the last flight.

Police this spring began a six-month program to test whether images captured by wide-angle cameras attached to airplanes could help them investigate murders, nonfatal shootings, armed robberies and carjackings. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the department to try to prevent the airplanes from taking off, but a federal judge ruled that the technology does not violate people’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

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The camera-equipped aircraft have flown above Baltimore during the day. Software then stitches together photos taken every second to create a continuous visual record of movement across the city. That record is meant to support the street-level cameras, license plate readers and gunfire sound detectors police already use to try to solve crimes.

Police did not respond to a request for comment from the newspaper.

In September, police announced that during the first three months of the test, the program had given officers information in 81 criminal cases, including 19 homicides. Of the cases backed by aerial imagery, 21% had been closed with an arrest compared to 16% of similar incidents that were not captured by the aerial surveillance system.

The department’s report acknowledged that it did not have enough data yet to determine whether the technology is effective.

Third-party researchers, including RAND Corp., are studying whether the program leads to arrests and case closures, earns public support and ultimately has a deterrent effect.

The test was funded by a philanthropy organization of Texas billionaires Laura and John Arnold. A private company operates the surveillance technology and analyzes the images for police.

Baltimore ended 2019 with 348 homicides, the fifth year in a row with more than 300 killings. As of Thursday, the city has recorded 276 homicides and 630 non-fatal shootings in 2020. Both figures are down compared with the same period last year, when the city had tallied 284 homicides and 661 non-fatal shootings.