Schaefer Center Report Finds Signs of Local Support for City's Aerial Investigation Research Program
December 18, 2020
Contact: Office of Government and Public Affairs
A survey of almost 850 Baltimore City residents by The University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy finds some support for the city's Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) pilot program, an initiative started last May by the Baltimore City Police Department to determine the impact of surveillance airplane technology on crime rates and clearance rates. Respondents to the survey also expressed some support for its potential deterrence effect on crime and offenders.
Regardless of the generally negative response to the air surveillance concept in the media, approximately half of the respondents (55 percent) supported it. There was evidence of more support for the program among respondents when asked specifically about the use of the AIR program in investigating homicides (65 percent), non-fatal shootings (61 percent), armed robberies (63 percent), and carjackings (60 percent).
A total of 36 percent of the respondents said they did not support the AIR program (27 percent) or were not sure if they supported it (9 percent); the remainder did not answer the question. For those who did not support the program or were not sure if they did, the most frequently cited reasons was concern with the program violating privacy (54 percent) followed by not knowing enough about the program to support it or a lack of community awareness about the program (40 percent and 36 percent, respectively).
"The overall findings of this report—including the facts that approximately half of respondents supported the AIR pilot program and that the respondents did not hold fiercely negative views of the Baltimore Police Department—are surprising in light of many popular views of the program," says Ann Cotten, director of the Schaefer Center. "Instead of an overwhelmingly negative response to the AIR pilot, these respondents tended to be supportive or at least neutral on this tool and on their relationships with one of the most visible parts of the government."
The study, funded by Arnold Ventures, LLC, was part of a wider evaluation effort of the AIR pilot program. RAND Corporation and The Policing Project at New York University School of Law are conducting other parts of the Arnold-funded evaluation. Morgan State University is conducting a separate evaluation funded by the Abell Foundation.
The Schaefer Center's survey was administered by via phone and web between June 2 and July 17, 2020. A total of 844 individuals participated in the survey. The AAPOR Response Rate 4 for the study is 5.2 percent. The research team deliberately oversampled from high crime and high poverty neighborhoods in Baltimore to ensure that the residents most impacted by violent crime would have a higher probability of being included in the survey. However, because the demographics of the respondents to the survey are not fully representative of the demographics of the city as a whole or of residents in those high crime and high-poverty neighborhoods, care should be taken in drawing causal conclusions about specific population groups' views on the AIR program. Results should be views only as the respondents' assessments of the AIR program, neighborhood conditions, and policing in Baltimore.
The Schaefer Center will conduct a second survey of city resident views on the AIR pilot program in early 2021, and the Center will produce a second report that will include both descriptive and inferential findings, allowing more conclusions to be drawn about support for the AIR pilot program.
From this first survey, the Schaefer Center recommended that the Baltimore Police Department expand communication and outreach around the AIR program. While a majority of respondents (61 percent) had heard of the program, many also had incorrect assumptions about the program's capabilities and its impact on basic rights. For example, approximately 45 percent said (incorrectly) they believe that a person can be identified from surveillance plane video footage, while a majority of respondents (56 percent) said they believe (incorrectly) that a person or vehicle can be tracked in real time by airplane.
The Schaefer Center's report on the findings concludes that a strategic plan for communicating about AIR is a reasonable strategy that could help close the knowledge gap, as is targeting residents by age for opportunities to receive additional information and ask questions about the program. The ongoing pandemic, it notes, has blunted efforts by city police to host information sessions for the public.
The findings from the AIR study, Cotten says, indicate that there may be more support for the AIR pilot program than was commonly assumed. In addition, the overall average responses to questions on policing in Baltimore, personal safety and neighborhood conditions were often neutral, which suggests a slightly more positive view of the city's police department than commonly assumed. For example, a Morgan State University survey conducted earlier this year as part of the consent decree process found that 60 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the city's police department; this included 57 percent of respondents saying they were very dissatisfied.
Cotten notes that, "While we do not take a position on whether the city should adopt this new technology more permanently, we do think the survey results show the need for more communication directly from the BPD and that it should be targeted to specific groups. Communication and outreach can help build a better relationship between city residents and the Baltimore Police and help build support for other new policing initiatives."
Read the Schaefer Center's summary report or full report on the Aerial Investigation Research Project: Interim Findings from the Early Launch Community Survey June 2020.
Learn more about the Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
The University of Baltimore is a member of the University System of Maryland and comprises the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the UB School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.