(TNS) — As leading business and religious groups consider whether to endorse the return of crime-fighting surveillance planes above Baltimore, a poll commissioned by a prominent local pastor shows strong support for the initiative among city residents.
Backers funded the survey to gauge sentiment on the planes as violent crime remains stubbornly high, skepticism lingers from the secretive rollout of surveillance flights in 2016 and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said there’s insufficient evidence of the planes’ effectiveness.
The Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Upton and a member of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s board of directors, said he used a $40,000 grant from the Abell Foundation to commission the poll by Hart Research Associates. He said he had been hearing community members express support for such surveillance and wanted to be “a little bit more factual” in determining whether interest was widespread.
It turned out it was, he said.
“I was surprised, really was surprised, at how overwhelmingly people were in support of aerial surveillance,” Hathaway said.
Of 500 residents polled, 74% said they would generally support “a program to conduct aerial surveillance over the city of Baltimore to reduce serious crimes like murder.” Twenty% said they would oppose such a program, with 6% unsure.
The numbers barely budged — to 72% in support, 23% opposed — when respondents were given a more detailed description: “A small aircraft flies over the city and provides images that track vehicles and people to and from reported crime scenes. The information is then provided to the Baltimore Police Department to help them solve crimes. An outside independent oversight group would ensure that the system is not being abused, and the program would be entirely paid for by a private donor.”
Hart Research, a polling outfit founded in 1971, conducts polls for major politicians and news outlets. Its polling for Hathaway reached 500 registered voters in Baltimore by phone Oct. 2-6. Those polled were representative of the city’s broader population, it said: 59% black and 35% white, and 45% male and 55% female. The poll had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%.
Black respondents were strongly supportive, with 78% expressing support in response to the general aerial surveillance question compared with 67% of white respondents. To the more descriptive question, the responses were similar, with 79% of black respondents and 63% of white respondents in favor.
Of all respondents, 57% “strongly” supported aerial surveillance, while 12% “strongly” opposed it.
The questions used highlighted aspects of the program that are cited by its supporters, including the tracking of criminals from crime scenes, the potential to help solve crimes, and outside oversight and funding. And they left out the fears of some citizens and civil liberties advocates, who say the proposed program would violate the privacy of all Baltimore residents, not just those coming and going from crime scenes.
The ACLU of Maryland, specifically, has blasted the program as a Big Brother-type overreach by the government allowing a private company to collect reams of data on the lives of everyday residents.
Still, Hathaway said the poll findings reflect much of what he has been hearing: People are desperate for answers.
“I think about the people who I would talk to, those people who invested, who worked hard, who sent their children to school, who care for their grandchildren. They want a safe community. They want a safe neighborhood. And they see police as allies,” Hathaway said. “They want to feel that our police department is doing everything it can to make certain that when people commit crimes, they get caught.”
Of those polled, 59% agreed that “we should do everything legally possible to stop violent crime, including innovative policies outside traditional law enforcement.” And a full 60% said crime is going up and the city is going in the wrong direction.
Homicides are above where they were this time last year, according to city data, and remain near historic highs. Overall violent crime is flat.
The polling is the latest salvo in the spirited, yearslong debate over surveillance planes in the city.
Ross McNutt of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems first flew one plane above the city as part of a pilot program in 2016. That program, which wasn’t shared with the city’s political leaders or the public, was halted once it was revealed.
Now, McNutt is pitching three planes to city officials. Flown together for most daylight hours, they would be capable of recording nearly the entire city, he has said. Investigators could then use that footage to go back to the time and scene of crimes and track individuals and vehicles — little more than a few pixels on the screen — until they pass by ground-level surveillance cameras, which police could review for more useful evidence.
McNutt said the program would cost $2.2 million a year, and that Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold have offered to pay for it. The couple also paid for the previous pilot program.
John Arnold said he has made no final commitments but has “expressed significant interest” in restarting the program in Baltimore.
Hathaway said he hopes his poll shows everyone involved that the people of the city want this technology in place.
On Friday, he explained the findings to the board of the GBC, which is assessing the program.
Both Don Fry, the GBC’s president and CEO, and University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke, former mayor and co-chair of the GBC’s public safety committee, confirmed that the safety committee has come down in favor of the program and called on the business group’s full board of directors to consider staking out a position, as well.
Fry said the full board is now “considering a position,” and discussed the concept with Police Commissioner Michael Harrison during a meeting Friday.
“The Board has been engaged in an educational effort to fully understand the program, the pros and cons, and its potential impact on public safety,” Fry said in a statement.
Fry would not describe the conversations that GBC members had with the commissioner, nor did he address Hathaway’s poll.
Eric Melancon, Harrison’s chief of staff, said the commissioner “appreciates the support from GBC” and considered Friday’s discussion “productive,” but declined to describe it in any detail. He did note that Harrison has previously commented publicly on the lack of evidence for the planes’ effectiveness. “We are interested in evidence-based solutions,” Melancon said.
Hathaway said everyone at the GBC meeting was receptive when he shared his poll findings. “Their feeling was like, ‘Wow, you’re right, Al. We need to hear from the community,’ “ he said.
In addition to the GBC, Hathaway said he intends to share the poll results with the Ministers’ Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity at its meeting Monday, and has had some indications from that group’s executive committee that it would throw its support behind the surveillance planes.
Many city officials have been circumspect, or flatly skeptical, of the surveillance proposal. City Councilman Brandon Scott has suggested more proven technologies, such as license plate readers and CCTV cameras, would be a better investment, and Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, chair of the council’s public safety committee, has said he has many questions about the program.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has said he supports the proposal.
Bob Embry, who heads the Abell Foundation, which funded the poll, and is also secretary of the GBC board, said he is in firm support as well. And he has been a prime agitator for its adoption among Baltimore’s business and civic leaders, arranging for McNutt to speak with them.
“It’s self-evident that it should be tried, to see if it has an effect, particularly since it doesn’t cost anything,” Embry said. “Here is a free intervention that on the face of it helps address the woefully inadequate clearance process for arresting people who are committing violent crimes.”
Embry said he fears that McNutt and Arnold could take their offer elsewhere if Baltimore doesn’t accept it soon.
McNutt has been in talks with community members in St. Louis about introducing surveillance planes there, too, though the extent to which he enjoys support from that city’s elected officials is unclear. He also said it is not necessarily an either-or proposition for the two cities.
McNutt said he has three planes but could build more relatively quickly if both cities opted to use his technology. Arnold said he has not ruled out funding programs in both cities.
“I’ve told Ross that I would fund a community with significant need that wanted to incorporate the tech,” Arnold said. “I haven’t said I’d only fund one, nor have I said I would fund more.”
The GBC has not said when it might reach a final decision on the surveillance program.
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