BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Since January, the city of Baltimore has been under intermittent surveillance from the sky, and the public was never told, according to a report out this week in Bloomberg Businessweek.

A small Cessna airplane equipped with cameras spent hours flying over the city, and feeding its footage back to huge hard drives, the report says.

The Baltimore Police Department held a press conference on the matter Wednesday afternoon, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake put out a statement around the same time.

“I was recently made aware of the Persistent Surveillance Systems Inc. work with our city,” Rawlings-Blake wrote.

“The pilot program, funded by an anonymous donor, is cutting edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safer. My top priority, which I have continuously communicated to Commissioner Davis, has been to keep our city safe. His team sought opportunities to find new technology that works hand in hand with our robust Citiwatch program. This technology is about public safety. This isn’t surveilling or tracking anyone. It’s about catching those who choose to do harm to citizens in our city.”

The program is “not an unmanned drone or a secret surveillance program,” Baltimore Police Department spokesman T.J. Smith began the Wednesday press conference by saying.


“This is a 21st century investigative tool used to assist investigators in solving crimes. The wide area imagery system allows for the capability of seeing 32 square miles. This, effectively, is a mobile CitiWatch camera. What we gain with this is size, so we see a larger area than we would see with a CitiWatch camera, but what we lose is the clarity that we get from a CitiWatch camera, which is on the ground.”

He credited the program with helping solve a crime involving a pair of elderly siblings being shot in Walbrook Junction in February.

The CitiWatch program is a voluntary registry that contains the location and owner information of privately owned surveillance systems—information that is valuable to the Baltimore Police Department in the event of a crime. There are 700 such cameras throughout the city.

“Years ago, when we embarked on our CitiWatch program, there were similar anxieties and that’s understandable,” Smith said. “We expect this technology to be used for other public safety concerns, like Silver Alerts, Amber Alerts, floods, sinkholes, fires, terrorist attacks, and more. It adheres to our CCTV policies. We currently know that there are existing technologies that are out there in the world and in place, like red light cameras, speed cameras, license plate readers, other CCTV and facial recognition. All of those programs received the same level of scrutiny. This is a 21st century technology that other large cities across the country are also testing.”

Smith ended his initial remarks by saying  “the only people that should be concerned in the city of Baltimore are criminals.”

When asked why the program was never disclosed to the public, Smith pointed out that it is not the department’s policy to put out press announcements for new or changed CitiWatch cameras, and that it’s not an official city program, but rather a trial program.

He also said the program “wasn’t continuous from January 1st through today”, but rather consisted of 100 hours of filming in the January and February, and 200 hours over the summer months.

There are a few more weeks left in the current phase of the program, but “we don’t have a plan at this point to move forward beyond that,” Smith said.

In a statement on Wednesday night, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said, “We do knot know yet if our examination of this technology will result in a recommendation to permanently pursue it, but promise a robust and inclusive community conversation in the event that we conclude it can improve public safety in Baltimore.”

Ross McNutt, the president and CEO of Persistent Surveillance, was also on hand at the press conference.

“We believe that we contribute significantly to the safety and the support of the citizens here in Baltimore and we greatly appreciate the opportunity,” he said.

“We do have the legal analysis that covers the program that we are no different than any other airborne law enforcement organization camera system. There are four Supreme Court level decisions that cover this, that deal with one out of Florida and one out of California, specifically, that were used to gather search warrants. One was in 1984 and one was in 1986.”

Those documents have been reviewed with the State’s Attorney’s office, McNutt said.

Commissioner Davis says the program was made available to Baltimore through a private donation in an effort to seek ways to enhance public safety.

WJZ has learned that Texas billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura  donated the money to a non-profit Baltimore Community Foundation, saying in a statement, ““We invest in a wide array of criminal justice issues and policies, including strategies for improving the clearance rate of criminal cases. One such strategy is to use technology to assist police in early-stage investigations. To that end, we personally provided financial support for the aerial surveillance tool being piloted in Baltimore.  As a society, we should seek to understand whether these technologies yield significant benefits, while carefully weighing any such benefits against corresponding tradeoffs to privacy.”

Many residents, including Councilman Brandon Scott are wondering why the public wasn’t notified.

“Why in the world didn’t we tell people about this,” said Scott. In light of everything happening in the city, transparency is key with us moving forward.”

Police agencies in Pennsylvania, California and Ohio have also tested the technology.

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Comments (51)
  1. john sheldon says:

    sounds good , cause the police can get help taking trouble off the streets .

  2. Jimmy VA says:

    Jefferson, and The Founders, made Provisions in the US Declaration of Independence in dealing with CORRUPT and TYRANNICAL Govt. We will not be LIED TO, and, SURVEILLED without our knowing. Get prepared, Patriots. Our Govt, especially 0b*ma, and Hillary Clinton, are CORRUPT.

  3. Joe V says:

    Corrupt governments doing what corrupt governments do all the time, this is why we have the 2nd amendment. We already know we cannot count of the courts to prosecute any of these people.

  4. Persistent surveillance ABSOLUTELY allows “authorities” to track any target they want. Period. End of discussion.

    Gigapixel cameras allow very high-res photos to be overlayed w/ time stamps. Match those time stamps up to any 911 call log and now, (1) city block becomes a potential “suspect.” Presumption of innocence much? Don’t be fooled…just because there is no presumption of privacy in a public space, doesn’t mean that persistent/passive surveillance doesn’t destroy your natural right to be free in your activities. What a bogus bunch of garbage.

    And what about this John Arnold fella. What’s in it for him? What’s his gain in the end? Money? Political power? Probably both. He’s from Texas, what does Baltimore hold near and dear to his heart?

    1. Tweed Tweed says:

      Same system used in Iraq to stop IED bombings.

  5. Mike Arvand says:

    The funny part about it is all you really need is a B&W camera.

    1. you get the trophy this week! 🏆👍👍

  6. m.c.c. says:

    If you treat a population of people like they’re all criminals (which these mass surveillance programs do), a very large number who had no inclination before will start committing crimes too. Most of the rest will turn a blind eye and not lift a finger to help out.

    The government is responsible for the societal dysfunctions we see today. Their ill-thought-out programs destroyed the family and social structures (particularly among lower income) which in turn created a huge mess that they’re incapable of “fixing.” Their response is to keep marching down the path of an increasingly intrusive police state.

    Perhaps one day people will wake up and realize if only 5% to 10% of the population defied laws, there is nothing politicians and police can do. Oh wait, Baltimoreans have had a taste of this already when agitators rioted last year. The question is: do they have any willpower left to keep their zoo keepers from completely turning Baltimore City into a maximum security prison.

  7. There is ZERO chance I’ll ever be seen by Baltimore snoops.

  8. Don Steele says:

    This merely a tip of the iceberg. The US Govt has been circling there for months in an ATR twin turboprop…with LOADS of scanning equipment on board….I have been tracking them.

  9. Michael Clifford says:

    If you are out in public walking, standing or driving there are no laws that say someone else cannot video you so why not the cops. Besides they are not targeting individuals unless the individual is suspected of something. They are videoing the neighborhood the same way a night watchman would be looking out for the neighborhood. When they see something that does not look right they are acting on it. If a crime is committed in the area they can go back to the video to see if there is some information there to help solve the crime.

    I have no problem at all. It is much more efficient than having a hundred cops walking up and down every street and ally checking the locks on the doors.

  10. I thought that electing a black woman was supposed to make things better.

  11. This was being reported on last year, wake up and do your homework. The planes being used for these ops were registered to a shadow company in VA. The same equipment was being used in other parts of the country where the police violence and civil unrest were going on.

  12. Kruel Hunter says:

    I’d like to suggest a new cop on the beat. Drone technology is available that would allow full time surveillance from a central location. Drones can now be automated for just such duties and programmed to alert a central station if any of a list of criteria are met by the current situation as observed by the drone’s computer. Call ’em “Cop’s Eyes” and let them go looking for trouble that can then be handled by the nearest human police. They won’t require salaries or retirement plans or unions. Or coffee shops.

  13. RB says:

    Who exactly is funding this surveillance? Bet dollars to donuts it’s DHS.

  14. Tammy Porter says:

    From what I understand, there are a lot of criminals in Baltimore including all the looters and arsonists that were never arrested from the last riots. The plane is a great idea but the article left out with kind of armaments that are included.

  15. John Wilson says:

    Immediately remove all police and firefighter presence from all “communities of color” around the country.

    Let the good citizens fend for themselves.

  16. Neal Watt says:

    Considering the recent Arsonist Terrorism of Baltimore, I would say that the Baltimore Police need riot shotguns and water cannons worse than this airplane.

  17. Bob says:

    “funded by an anonymous donor”

    The NSA duh! Who else could it be with this bleeding edge technology and the need to remain anonymous?

  18. John Dough says:

    I’ll make it clear. If it’s not surveillance then i’m sure the Baltimore police will have no problem if someone started collecting and publishing the same information on Baltimore Police officers. After all, knowing where the police officers are at any given time would be helpful for citizens in need of help. I can’t see any reason not to, as mentioned in the article, the only Baltimore Police officers who’d have anything to fear are the corrupt ones.

  19. Sam G says:

    Any city run by a mayor such as Baltimore’s Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake I would not trust to watch my used cat litter.

    That woman and her pit bull Black Lives Only matter card carrying district attorney, both should be locked up for their allowing Baltimore to order all Law enforcement to stand down and let the city riot and burn. All while the brave men and women in blue were forced to watch as violent crime happened right in front of them.

    The videos of African American thugs carjacking causation men, women and children that were prevalent and easy to find, magically disappeared online….. Imagine that.

    Our current Commander in Chief praised both of these Baltimore officials, my opinion differs from this in a big way. I can’t wait for him to leave office, these public servants need to know ALL LIVES MATTER.

  20. Raleigh Wood says:

    “Hell is paved with good intentions.”

  21. dfiiiuurre says:

    I don’t think the police chief even knows he’s paraphrasing Nazi Joseph Goebells. If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear. Straight up Nazi propaganda.

  22. Anonymous donor? Sounds similar to Big Brother to me.

  23. Baltimore was pretty entertaining for a while there, when the ferals were looting and burning the place in high-def.

    Now, it’s pretty stale stuff.

  24. Lets give up all privacy for security.. sounds grand..

  25. Chris B. says:

    So the Mayor of Baltimore “Just heard about” a Persistent Surveillance system in and of the City?
    Monitoring residents without a warrant?
    Who is in charge in Baltimore? Anonymous Donors?

  26. ScottyGunn says:

    Paid for by one anonymous donor. Yea, George Soros.

  27. Bo says:

    Commissioner Davis and the BPD leadership would do more for the city if they stood behind (or in front of) their officers, instead of throwing them under the bus out of political expediency, to wit; Lieutenant Vic Gearhart. Gearhart’s “mistake” was to speak the truth and call BLM activists “Thugs” … it would be more accurate to call them a domestic terror group … yet Davis suspended Gearhart for simply stating the obvious. Such cowardly leadership is both a cancer to the street cops’ esprit de corps and injurious to officer safety. Encouraging and placating BLM is not a sign of tolerance, as burning down cities and murdering police officers is not Constitutionally-protected Free Speech (while Gearhart’s comments clearly were).

  28. Mr. Big says:

    Blacks hate Cops until they need one!

  29. This seems to a violation of the rights of criminals.

  30. DMC-12 says:

    Of course its a secret surveillance program. They’re not sharing the collected information with any citizen that requests it and they have “opted in” everyone in the city without asking them. There is only some weak assurance that “they will only use it for criminals” – that is, until some jackball on the force decides to track an ex-girlfriend or someone critical of their corrupt department.

    This is typical law enforcement overreach, hoping they won’t get caught. And now that they have they parade this moron T.J. Smith out to attempt to control the narrative. Citizens of Baltimore you should be irate and demanding the jobs of this Smith character and sneaky, sleazy Commissioner Kevin Davis.

  31. Ross says:

    “THEY” will take all the power WE let them. No intrusion is “too” much, it might save someones life. This country was founded on trading security for freedom. Now they want to take our freedom in the name of security. NO!

  32. Ed says:

    Let’s see… it’s a secret program, it’s a surveillance program, but it’s not a secret surveillance program. What are the laws in Maryland regarding consent before videotaping? Neither billionaire John Arnold nor Persistent Surveillance are law enforcement departments, so they are in fact different than other airborne law enforcement organization camera systems. How does a hundred thousand civil lawsuits sound?

  33. ct says:

    I’m so refreshed that the vast majority of the commenters here have enough common sense to have at least some disdain for this type of intrusion. Those who don’t get it yet have obviously forgotten that the average person commits three crimes a day. It’s like no one remembers why the Gestapo was so bad. Also, think of the fools who take the laws word for everything. How hard would it be for the feds to email you kiddie porn without you knowing it, then make you do everything that they ask? Grow up people.

  34. Jojo says:

    Lived in Baltimore for 7 years, from 98-05. You can put up all the cameras and fly all the airplanes you want but it won’t make a bit of difference because the city government and the police really don’t give a $^!t. They might care if someone with money or power was killed, but those people left the city a long time ago. This sounds like the city got a gift from a wealthy couple that they will use to violate the rights of its citizens, who also by and large don’t care because they don’t have much to lose.

  35. jasonn13 says:

    “The program is “not …. a secret surveillance program,” ”

    Excuse me, but what else would you call it if the public doesn’t know about it and officials made no effort to inform them? Knucklehead.

  36. Java says:

    Totally unconstitutional and understandably funded by the Soroses and big corps to take advantage of the poorest, least involved and almost totally democrat infested portion of the country. These citizens have rights even if they don’t know them. Where is our military to prevent this?

  37. Cool, so does that mean just about every illegal dirt bike owner’s home has been identified over the past several months, and you are going to show up at their houses to cite or seize them while they are safely in the garage?

  38. Its me. says:

    Astonishing that the United States claims to advocate democracy, whilst simultaneously operating a fascist police state dictatorship entirely outside the rule of law, both domestic and international.

  39. The Mayor stated that her priority was public safety, but it is actually adherence to the Constitution. She’s already wrong.

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