Freddie Gray, FBI Planes and Civil Unrest: Baltimore 1 Year Later

Freddie Gray, FBI Planes and Civil Unrest: Baltimore 1 Year Later

Photo by SocialJusticeSeeker812 via Flickr

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I run into Bailey as she is stepping out of her car in downtown Baltimore. It has been almost a year since waves of protests shook the city following the death of Freddie Gray, but she remembers those days well. “I live off Fulton Street, right where everything was happening – the rioting, the looting around there.

“Now everything’s pretty much the same around there.”

The words have barely left her mouth when we are interrupted by the sirens of a BPD patrol car as it pulls up next to us on the street, parked facing the wrong way to roust a homeless black man leaning against the building behind us.

Bailey is in a hurry to get to work and cannot wait any longer when an ambulance and fire truck pull alongside the police cruiser. As she hustles off in the opposite direction, I watch as a police officer waves and walks over to meet the group of firemen and paramedics.

Coincidentally, all five of the public safety employees are white, wearing efficient matching crew cuts as they approach the disheveled African-American man. Diversity in the city’s hiring policies do not seem to have changed in the last year, at least when it comes to policing a predominantly black urban population.

Local opinions vary about whether the policing situation has changed since last year’s protests. According to Infinite, one of the city’s homeless residents, “Everybody is so down about saying the police have slowed down a little bit more, and nobody’s going out of their way for any type of confrontations. Those are definitely more restrained, just the random stops and interactions.”

But sitting shadowed by the dome of City Hall in War Memorial Plaza, I spoke to a local student who wished to remain anonymous. He moved to the city two months after the 2015 protests, he quickly said, “people are weird about it, almost afraid to talk about it.”

State of Emergency

Federal agents from the FBI, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security and the ATF all descended upon the city of Baltimore last year during a period in which tensions were high after the death of Freddie Gray.

Gray died from injuries he sustained while in police custody.

During this time, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and activated the state’s National Guard. Approximately 500 police officers from the area and 5000 from outside Baltimore aided during the unrest, according to an FBI summary of their involvement.

Almost everyone that I speak with remembers the sight of armored riot police and National Guard troops being deployed to the city, but few are aware that other county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies were involved at the time of the protests.

Jerry Gibson, Jr., a Baltimore native in his mid-twenties recalls, “I just remember seeing the news reports, and I’ve seen the military coming down Pratt St, trying to protect that area from being damaged… Mostly just National Guard and State Police.” When asked what may have changed in the city’s policing since Gray’s death, Gibson added, “I hear and see a lot of situations going on about police brutality, but as long as I’m not harmed by the police, I don’t really know what’s really going on.”

New Revelations

In particular, FAA documentation received last October under Freedom of Information Act requests by Nathan Freed Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union showed the extent of surveillance flights conducted by the FBI over Baltimore last year. The documents give a glimpse at the capabilities of the fleet of planes operated by the FBI monitoring cities nationwide, but many Baltimore residents remain unaware that their city was the subject of aerial surveillance.

The FBI was reportedly monitoring the social media activity of “Sovereign Citizens” regarding the protests, stating, “the potential for large scale violence and riots throughout the week presents a significant challenge for the Baltimore Police Department for airborne surveillance and observation.”

The unexpected size of the rallies and protests is why the Baltimore police asked for assistance from the FBI’s aerial surveillance teams, according to the documents obtained by the ACLU.

The FBI has admitted that it flew 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore from April 29 to May 3, 2015. The operation involved a propeller-driven Cessna 182T Skylane registered to Bristow, Virginia-based “NG Research,” as well as a jet-powered Cessna 560 Citation V with unknown FAA registration. The two aircraft used during the protests clocked a total flight time of 36.2 hours.

The FBI documents describe the purpose of these flights as conducting both airborne video and “Other Electronic Surveillance.” It is unclear what this “other electronic surveillance” may refer to. Although most of the flights took place at night, the official logs show no hours listed under the heading “NVG,” presumably an acronym for “night vision goggles.”

Other documents obtained by the ACLU reveal that one of the aircraft had a FLIR Talon multi-sensor camera system, which includes a thermal imager. The FBI has stated they did not use thermal imaging during these flights. The use of thermal imaging is required by law to have a warrant, and its use in investigations has been controversial.

The documents provided by the FBI also state that they engaged in “consensual monitoring” ,however, the type of monitoring is not elaborated on. While the FAA’s flight records list the crews’ FBI affiliations with the “Special Flight Operations Unit,” several also show that members of the Baltimore Police Department were included as passengers.

The Police “haven’t changed”

I meet Leonard as I’m preparing to leave downtown while walking back to my car parked in an area near city hall and the police headquarters building. The site of some of the earliest protests following Gray’s death, our location is only a few blocks from the popular and business-friendly Inner Harbor area. According to flight paths mapped at the time, this area also saw heavy traffic by FBI surveillance aircraft.

Leonard, a lifetime Baltimore resident says “I remember when they [protesters] ride up on Baltimore Street, I was in Starbucks there and they broke into 7-11 around the corner. I’ll say this city has got to get its act together as far as crime on the streets, and within the organizations that are supposed to stop the crime.”

He continued, “I think the mayor did not do a good job. The police are about the same, maybe a bit more restrained, but I don’t think it’s for the better. The mayor was more concerned about political aspects. Do I think the situation has changed? Maybe legally, because of cases and precedents, but on the streets, crime and police haven’t changed.”

The Story Continues

The Baltimore Police Department is currently facing a lawsuit unrelated to last year’s protests from a defendant, Kerron Andrews, who was arrested based on evidence allegedly obtained through the use of cell site simulators. Such devices send signals to mimic legitimate cell phone towers in order to collect information from cell phones in the effected area. This surveillance technology are also known to be used by the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies when conducting aerial surveillance.

The lawsuit filed by Mr. Andrews’ attorney describes the use of this surveillance technology without a warrant as a violation of the suspect’s Constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. An earlier document reported on by the North Star Post’s Sam Richards states the FBI also does not view conducting aerial electronic surveillance as something that requires a warrant.

The FBI has so far refused to release the video footage it obtained by aerial surveillance during the Baltimore protests. The Baltimore Police Department and Mayor’s Office have not responded when contacted for comments about this story.

Timeline of Events:

    • Sunday, 4/12/15 – Freddie Gray is arrested by Baltimore police officers after “fleeing unprovoked” and is placed in transport van. Paramedics are called upon reaching the Western District police station.Gray is then taken to the University of Maryland hospital.
    • Tuesday, 4/14/15 – Gray undergoes surgery, remains in a coma
    • Saturday, 4/18/15 – The Western District police station where Gray was taken becomes the site of the first protests.
    • Sunday, 4/19/15 – Freddie Gray dies in the hospital.
    • Monday, 4/20/15 – Baltimore PD announce the suspension of six officers involved in Gray’s arrest.
    • Tuesday, 4/21/15 – The Justice Department announces a federal investigation into the circumstances of Gray’s death.
    • Thursday, 4/23/15 – Governor Hogan deploys Maryland State Police to handle increasing protests in Baltimore.
    • Saturday, 4/25/15 – Twelve people are arrested as over a thousand protesters march on City Hall.
    • Monday, 4/27/15 – Gray’s funeral is held. Governor Hogan calls in the National Guard as violence and looting are reported across the city.
    • Tuesday, 4/28/15 – Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake institutes a citywide curfew running from 10 pm until 5 am.
    • Wednesday 4/29/15 – Baltimore PD refuse to publicly release their initial investigation of Gray’s death. Nationwide rallies begin in solidarity with the Baltimore protesters.
      FBI surveillance flight one: 2.6 hours
      FBI surveillance flight two: 4.5 hours
    • Thursday, 4/30/15 – The police investigation is handed over to the states attorney, Marilyn Mosby. Four arrests are made for curfew violations
      FBI surveillance flight three: 4.9 hours
      FBI surveillance flight four: 3.4 hours
      FBI surveillance flight five: 2 hours
    • Friday, 5/1/15 – Charges are filed against the six officers suspended from Gray’s arrest. Mosby publicly declares Gray’s death a homicide, and calls his original arrest illegal. Forty arrests are made for curfew violations.
      FBI surveillance flight six: 1.4 hours
      FBI surveillance flight seven: 5 hours
    • Saturday, 5/2/15 – Forty six arrests are made for curfew violations, including journalist Ford Fischer.
      FBI surveillance flight eight: 3.9 hours
      FBI surveillance flight nine: 4.3 hours
    • Sunday, 5/3/15 – Curfew ends and charges against the violators are dropped.
      FBI surveillance flight ten: 4.2 hours
    • Monday, 5/4/14 – The Maryland National Guard withdraws from Baltimore.
    • Wednesday, 5/6/15 – Governor Hogan ends the state of emergency.
    • Wednesday, 12/16/15 – The first trial of BPD Officer William Porter ends with a mistrial.

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