By J.K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO

The return of Baltimore’s surveillance plane cleared a critical hurdle, April 1.

In a 3-2 vote, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted to accept grant funding for the so-called “spy plane” that first got city residents’ attention in 2016.

The program until now had been grounded until questions over a host of civil rights concerns could be answered. All the while a continuing consent decree between the city, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), and the Department of Justice has specific demands that new technology be integrated equitably.

Council President Brandon M. Scott addressing Baltimore’s Board of Estimates (Screenshot captured from CharmTV Citizen’s Hub YouTube)

The new program is being dubbed a “pilot,” despite the false 2016 start.

The vote was carried by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, and his two appointments to the five-member Board, the acting heads of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, and the City Solicitor.

The two votes in opposition were City Council President Brandon M. Scott and City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, CPA.

Mr. Scott was most vociferous in his dissent.

“There is no doubt that Baltimore is suffering from a violence epidemic like we have never seen before,” Scott said during the meeting. “Baltimoreans are hurting and fearful of what continues to happen on the streets of our city. So I understand why communities who continuously experience the trauma of losing loved ones will reach out to anything they think might provide some relief. However, gun violence is a disease that needs to be cured, not fought. Unproven experiments and gimmicks designed to simply appease communities in the short term will not provide our residents with the trauma-responsive care that they need and deserve.”

Community trauma and relief are of the foremost concern given vendors and advocates wild and contradictory claims about the plane’s efficacy.

The boldest claim made directly to BPD Commissioner Michael Harrison was that the program could cut murders by a third, yet made no appreciable impact in Baltimore’s 2016 murder rate. And no data from the plane’s maiden flights led to any arrests for violent crime.

Further criticism from Scott, the Baltimore ACLU and Baltimore NAACP Legal Defense Fund, question how the community could be involved in the decision to consent to persistent surveillance during all daylight hours.

Two Facebook live events have been held leading up to the April 1 vote, but Mr. Scott cited Baltimore statistics indicating the communities under the most scrutiny will have the least say online.

“For example, Sandtown-Winchester, 39 percent of the people don’t have internet at home,” Scott told the AFRO. “35 in Park Heights. 35 in Druid Heights. So, the neighborhoods where this is most likely to be used, don’t have internet. You can’t say that you engaged the community by going on Facebook.”

Community meetings are a non-starter amidst the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Mr. Scott was also critical of the timing of this decision. Originally tabled for debate May 1, the Mayor moved the surveillance program item up to April 1.

The urgency of the matter was not explained at the meeting.

However, Commissioner Harrison returned to the phrase “force multiplier” during his rationale for the program, and how he overcame initial skepticism of the program.

In the last week, the New York Police Department has pulled 13 percent of its officers off the line for COVID-related illness, infection and exposure.

AFRO requests for BPD manpower statements have not been answered at the time of this writing, and the same requests for statements from the Mayor’s office were directed to BPD. BPD does not report to city council.

The program is scheduled to run 180 days at a budget of $3.7 million, up from an original estimate of $2.2 million. Funded entirely by a grant, the money will be coming from former Enron natural gas trader John D. Arnold.

“Baltimore needs a leader who will strategize with every single one of our city agencies and law enforcement partners to tackle crime in Baltimore with a common mission and unified plan,” Scott said in an April 1 statement. “This plane — especially right now in the midst of a global public health emergency, without true public input and dialogue — is not a smart move for our city. If we care about saving lives, we have no time to be distracted by questionable solutions. We should be laser focused on solutions such as targeting violent repeat offenders, that have been proven to work in Baltimore and in cities across the country.”

Both Mr. Scott and Mr. Young are currently running for mayor.