The FBI admitted that it flew secret surveillance planes over Baltimore during last week’s riots following Freddie Gray’s funeral to provide assistance for police on the ground.
Looting and fires erupted in the streets on April 27 only hours after Gray’s funeral.
The planes were spotted by eagle-eyed residents earlier this week, but their purpose was a mystery at first.
A citizen-based investigation into their mission then got underway, beginning with a tweet on Saturday May 2 from Scan Baltimore, which streams police radio transmissions.
It wrote: ‘Anyone know who has been flying the light plane in circles above the city for the last few nights?’
After that internet user Pete Cimbolic, from Baltimore, managed to uncover the flight path of a light aircraft – a Cessna 182 – circling over the city.
He tweeted: ‘Persistent surveillance from low-flying aircraft is happening now in Bmore’, and posted a screen shot of its loops as recorded by flightradar24.com.
Further spadework on Flight Radar’s data by internet users and the Baltimore Sun dug up flight paths of two more aeroplanes making circular journeys over the city – a Cessna 206 and a Cessna 560 Citation jet.
All three jets were ‘squawking’ ID codes only ever used by law enforcement planes.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the FBI said: ‘The aircraft were specifically used to assist in providing high-altitude observation of potential criminal activity to enable rapid response by police officers on the ground. The FBI aircraft were not there to monitor lawfully protected First Amendment activity.’
The American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern over the flights and the fact that the FBI had not been forthcoming about their presence.
A spokesman said that as the planes can track many people at once, the authorities should not be using them secretly.