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Baltimore’s Aerial Surveillance Could Offer Preview For St. Louis

Persistence Surveillance Systems originally developed its technology for military use and now hopes to bring it to St. Louis. This 2013 aerial photo shows the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods in St. Louis.
Paul Sableman | Flickr

Last October on St. Louis on the Air, the CEO of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems described his wish to bring the company’s aerial surveillance technology to St. Louis.

“We believe this will help major cities reduce their major crime rates dramatically,” Ross McNutt said. “And when you look at the United States, there are two major cities that stand out above all the rest: St. Louis and Baltimore.”

Since that conversation, Persistent Surveillance Systems was able to bring a pilot of its program to Baltimore in conjunction with the Baltimore Police Department. The trial run began in late April and is wrapping up this fall.

In September, the Baltimore Police Department released a report stating that since May, the aerial surveillance system has supplied the department with information on 81 criminal cases, including 19 homicides.

“The police department themselves say there’s not sufficient data to say whether it’s effective or not,” said Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson — a Baltimore journalist who has been following the BPD Aerial Investigation Research Pilot Program closely. “There’s some questions about whether it's daytime data versus nighttime, whether it’s inside the coverage area or outside the coverage area. So that’s all still in process.”

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said he’s uncertain whether the program will succeed, Cavanaugh Simpson said. “He has no expectations one way or the other, he wants to let the data speak for itself.”

Meanwhile, the program has some concerned, including the ACLU of Maryland.

“The ACLU initially filed a complaint for a preliminary injunction to stop the planes from going up,” Cavanaugh Simpson said. “Their concern is ... that the constant aerial, warrantless, suspicionless mass surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.”

The ACLU of Maryland said it submitted the lawsuit in early April on behalf of local community leaders and Black Lives Matter activists, who also later became troubled after noticing planes circling overhead during the protests that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring.

“Some [activists] have been followed from protests by police in the past; they feel like this is one other tool to do that,” Cavanaugh Simpson said. “They feel less comfortable going out on streets to reach out to people when they know that they are being recorded from above.”

After a U.S. District judge decided to let the program move forward, the ACLU appealed. Oral arguments for the appeal were heard in mid-September, and a ruling on the case is expected soon.

On Monday's St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Cavanaugh Simpson about her reporting on this topic for Baltimore Magazine, which was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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