Baltimore gets rid of Aerial Surveillance but doubles down on Red-Light and Speed Cameras

The real issue here is that Baltimore wants more cash, and that’s what cams can give. Installing the cams ain’t cheap either.

The Board of Estimates approved a plan that will cost more than $11 million to install ten intersection red-light cameras, ten portable RLCs, and twenty speed cameras. The city already operates a total of 275 cams—135 speed and 140 RLCs. 45 more equals a grand total of 320…one of the highest numbers of any city in the country.

The expected revenue for the Fiscal Year 2021 is $14.1 million—that amount has decreased by $8 million from the preliminary FY2021 budget, which is likely due to the COVID-19 crisis. Currently, RLC tickets cost $75, and speed cam tickets cost $40.

The Board of Estimates passed this new mandate on cams without discussion. This is in spite of the fact that two times before, the city of Baltimore had to suspend its program because cams gave out erroneous tickets. Cam programs of this magnitude have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with policing for profit.

On the other hand, the same Board of Estimates will likely stop the city’s aerial surveillance program—which we think is a good thing. Weirdly though, the aerial surveillance program did not cost the city a thing because two Texas philanthropists funded it.

The final flight was on October 31st. For six months, the company called Persistent Surveillance Systems had pilots fly around the city, capturing images of 32 square miles all in the hope it would help reduce violent crime.

Last April, the temporary program was voted by the Board of Estimates 3 to 2. They began the program over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates. The newly minted mayor Brandon Scott, who in April was the Council President, was also against the aerial program and was one of the two voting against it.

Scott’s problem was not necessarily that it was surveillance invading individual privacy. Instead, he voted against it because the images did not capture the city’s peak hours for violence at night since the plane only could fly during daytime hours. The mayor also stated that the city had not invested enough in other ground surveillance technology to make the overhead images effective in fighting crime.

Could it also be that eventually, the city would have to pay for the service, and it really does not make any cash like cams?

In late January, the two Texas philanthropists promoting the technology declined to give any more support, just as Persistent Surveillance Systems was closing a deal with the city of St. Louis.

Now a court case against the Baltimore aerial surveillance program might be put on hold. The ACLU had sought court relief to block the plane’s use due to privacy concerns, but a federal judge ruled against the group. In December, though, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals decided to reconsider the case, and oral arguments were set for March. The city now plans to file a “suggestion of mootness” since the planes are no longer operating.

Both the ground and air cams are police surveillance and have a substantial operating cost for the city of Baltimore. However, an even higher cost is on the psyche of residents who find themselves under constant surveillance.

Questions remain.

  • If more ground surveillance comes online, will the mayor and the city reconsider aerial surveillance?
  • How much will the city use taxpayer dollars for this constant surveillance?
  • When will citizens wake up and say enough is enough?

Aerial surveillance is probably dead for now in Baltimore (and hopefully in St. Louis), but the only way for motorists to get rid of these automated traffic cameras will be to work on petitioning for a citywide vote.  Let me know if you have interest in getting started.

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