ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — The Maryland House Judiciary Committee heard arguments for and against a bill that would require the Police Commissioner of Baltimore City to notify the city council, mayor and delegation about the development of new tactics and use of specific enforcement zones within 30 days of their use.
The bill requires the police commissioner to submit a report explaining the potential establishment of “high crime” or “stop and frisk” zones in Baltimore and the use of surveillance devices or “innovative tactics,” according to a state document.
Delegate Frank Conaway, D-Baltimore, the sponsor of the bill, said in an interview with Maryland’s Capital News Service that it is in reference to a Department of Justice report that said the Baltimore Police Department was designating certain areas of the city as “high crime” or “stop and frisk” zones, which violated civil rights.
Conaway introduced several bills based on a January Baltimore City consent decree, which enforces reforms to the Baltimore Police Department, and a Department of Justice report. A federal judge still needs to sign off on the agreement before the requirements of the decree go into effect.
The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Baltimore police in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered an injury while being transported in a police van and later died. Gray’s death sparked protests and riots in the city.
Conaway testified that he believed the people living in zones designated as “high crime” should be informed of that designation.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger testified in opposition to a similar statewide bill that would also require all police departments in the state notify local officials of the use of new technologies — it does not include “high crime zone” language.
He expressed concerns that the language of the bill was too vague and that the reports would be subject to public information requests, even if the notification was for an active investigation.
License plate readers and wiretap technology, which he said are used by police several times a day as forms of electronic surveillance, may be subjected to the statute, Schellenberger testified. He expressed concern that the reports could compromise active investigations.
The Baltimore consent decree includes language that requires the city police to notify the local government when it uses new technologies.
The state does not have power to appoint the Baltimore police commissioner nor is it responsible for funding police operations. However, the state can write laws to implement policy changes in the police department.
Conaway added that the Baltimore police used aircraft for aerial surveillance of the city without notifying Baltimore City officials.
In August 2016, it was revealed that the Baltimore Police Department authorized a private firm to use cameras mounted on a small plane for aerial surveillance of Baltimore City. The program began in early 2016, according to a state document.
The bill requires that once the Baltimore police begin using new technologies, such as drones or cell-site simulators, they notify the Baltimore City Council, mayor and state government delegation within 30 days.
Cell-site simulators are devices that act like cell-phone towers but allow police to track and collect information from nearby phones.
Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Baltimore City Council and state officials were not initially made aware of the program and were not notified until months after it began.
“They need to have some kind of transparency or accountability beyond themselves,” Conaway told Maryland’s Capital News Service.
Conaway said that he has gotten negative feedback from law enforcement officers who have told him that the requirement to update Baltimore officials on new technology used by the police is too broad. He added that the police only have to notify city officials when that technology is deployed, not when the city police acquire the technology.
Proponents of the program said that the cameras do not capture high resolution images and it is very hard to personally identify people. However, privacy advocates argue that the market for the technology would accelerate development of more high-resolution cameras.