The Baltimore Police Department is preparing to solicit community feedback on a new policy that would allow it to operate small unmanned aircraft, or drones, for aerial surveillance during SWAT missions and to help collect evidence at crime scenes.

A draft policy provided to The Baltimore Banner detailed the situations in which the Police Department might use drones. For SWAT operations, the drones could be used during barricade situations, police shootings, arsons and explosions, hostage rescues, active shooters, “high-risk raids,” search and rescue, and locating a suspect who might be armed. A draft news release also stated the drones could be used for “de-escalation techniques for behavioral health crises.”

The policy stipulates the drones may be used for other “exigent circumstances … but only if it is for the protection of life and by approval of the police commissioner.” The department’s crime scene unit would be cleared to fly the drones and use them to document and collect evidence.

“This new technology will only be deployed in certain scenarios and will provide officers and crime scene technicians the safest, most efficient and lawful methods for collecting evidence, documenting scenes, assembling information and apprehending suspects during tactical situations,” the news release stated.

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A 30-day public comment period on the proposal will begin Thursday. The Police Department said it crafted the policy “alongside the Department of Justice and the federal consent decree’s monitoring team.”

The use of surveillance technology by Baltimore police has a long and controversial history. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the city’s police for their use of facial recognition technology during the 2015 protests over the death of Freddie Gray, who died from injuries sustained in police custody. The ACLU report, however, cites a Geofeedia case study on the Baltimore County Police Department’s use of the technology, meaning the city department might simply have been benefiting from another agency’s use of the surveillance tech during the protests.

The Baltimore Police Department itself has come under criticism for use of facial recognition technology in criminal investigations. The department also has drawn scrutiny for its utilization of advanced cellphone surveillance tech known as a “stingray” and, perhaps most notably, the use of military-grade surveillance aircraft, known as the “spy plane,” which made national headlines.

In 2021, well after the Police Department entered its consent decree, a federal appeals court ruled its aerial surveillance program unconstitutional after the ACLU sued over the technology.

The BPD has been considering the use of drones for years, though it has not yet officially waded in. Other nearby police departments, such as the Howard County Sheriff’s Office and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, have tested the unmanned aircraft.

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Baltimore Banner reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this report.

benjamin.conarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter focusing on law enforcement for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union. 

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