- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2019

A new poll shows that more than 70% of Baltimore residents would support police using surveillance planes to help stop violent crime.

As of Tuesday, the city has had 273 homicides this year, according to official city data posted online and updated by The Baltimore Sun.

The latest FBI data shows that Baltimore has 55 homicides per 100,000 residents, roughly 10 times greater than the overall U.S. rate of 5.3 homicides per 100,000.

Aiming to tackle the issue, Baltimore religious leaders recently revisited a controversial proposal to support the city’s police with a privately funded surveillance plane. They polled residents to gauge support for the plan.

Released this week, the survey of 500 Baltimore registered voters found 74% were generally supportive of aerial surveillance over the city “to reduce serious crimes like murder” while 20% were opposed and 6% were unsure.

Washington-based opinion research firm Hart Research Associates conducted the poll, which was paid for by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, which reportedly supports the plane proposal, The Sun reported.

On Tuesday, some local businesses expressed interest in the idea.

Rupesh Pandey owns the St. Helena Convenience Store in the city’s Dundalk section. He was not polled but said he could see merit in supporting police investigations.

“When crime is getting worse, you have to do something instead of watching it,” Mr. Pandey told The Washington Times.

But privacy advocates warn that the survey appeared to be weighed in favor of the proposal, which has been pushed by a private donor — the Ohio-based firm Persistent Surveillance Systems. In 2016, Persistent Surveillance Systems worked secretly with the Baltimore Police Department to fly a surveillance plane over the city. The program eventually was exposed and ended.

“This aerial surveillance program would be handed over to the city by a private donor without any oversight,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for the Project on Government Oversight’s Constitution Project.

“Governments cannot act like some sort of a demigod in the sky, which is what they are trying to do here,” Mr. Laperruque told The Times.

He added that while police “are not bad actors,” strict oversight is always required during aerial surveillance to ensure that privacy rights are not infringed upon.

Persistent Surveillance Systems President Ross McNutt has promoted aerial surveillance in Baltimore for at least five years. He has countered that collected footage would be used only to enhance criminal investigations and would supplement evidence collected on ground-level CitiWatch cameras.

Local media has reported that Mr. McNutt has proposed flying three planes over the city funded by $2.2 million in donations.

In August, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison met with Mr. McNutt but reportedly had no interest in reviving the surveillance program.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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