Since January, police have been testing an aerial surveillance system adapted from the surge in Iraq. And they neglected to tell the public.
The sky over the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on June 23 was the color of a dull nickel, and a broad deck of lowering clouds threatened rain. A couple dozen people with signs—“Justice 4 Freddie Gray” and “The whole damn system is guilty as hell”—lingered by the corner of the courthouse, watching the network TV crews rehearse their standups. Sheriff’s officers in bulletproof vests clustered around the building’s doors, gripping clubs with both hands.
Inside, a judge was delivering the verdict in the case of Caesar Goodson, the only Baltimore police officer facing a murder charge for the death of Freddie Gray. In April 2015, Gray’s neck was broken in the back of a police van, and prosecutors had argued that Goodson purposefully drove the vehicle recklessly, careening through the city, to toss Gray around.
The verdict trickled out of the courthouse in text messages: not guilty, all counts. Ralph Pritchett Sr., who’s spent each of his 52 years in Baltimore, stood on the sidewalk among the protesters. He chewed on a toothpick and shook his head slowly. In a city with more than 700 street-level police cameras, he wondered, shouldn’t the authorities have had video of Gray’s ride?
“This whole city is under a siege of cameras,” said Pritchett, a house painter who helps run a youth center in a low-income, high-crime neighborhood called Johnston Square. “In fact, they observed Freddie Gray himself the morning of his arrest on those cameras, before they picked him up. They could have watched that van, too, but no—they missed that one. I thought the cameras were supposed to protect us. But I’m thinking they’re there to just contradict anything that might be used against the City of Baltimore. Do they use them for justice? Evidently not.”
Pritchett had no idea that as he spoke, a small Cessna airplane equipped with a sophisticated array of cameras was circling Baltimore at roughly the same altitude as the massing clouds. The plane’s wide-angle cameras captured an area of roughly 30 square miles and continuously transmitted real-time images to analysts on the ground. The footage from the plane was instantly archived and stored on massive hard drives, allowing analysts to review it weeks later if necessary.
Since the beginning of the year, the Baltimore Police Department had been using the plane to investigate all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings. The Cessna sometimes flew above the city for as many as 10 hours a day, and the public had no idea it was there.
A company called Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Dayton, Ohio, provided the service to the police, and the funding came from a private donor. No public disclosure of the program had ever been made.
Outside the courthouse, several of the protesters began marching around the building, chanting for justice. The plane continued to circle overhead, unseen.
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SOURCE: Monte Reel