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Baltimore City Council plans hearing on undisclosed police surveillance plane program

Baltimore residents react to news of a secret Baltimore police surveillance project. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)

The City Council plans to summon Baltimore police to explain why the department did not disclose that it was using a private company to fly surveillance missions and to collect and store footage of wide swaths of the city.

Demands for a hearing come as the billionaire Texas philanthropists bankrolling the surveillance program revealed that they have given the initiative $360,000 through two charities — three times more than previously disclosed by the Baltimore Community Foundation, which passed through the initial November gift of $120,000 from Laura and John Arnold.

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A separate charity, the Police Foundation in Washington, handled an additional $240,000 gift from the Houston couple in April. That group said it will produce an evaluation of the program by the end of next month.

Also on Thursday, the Baltimore Community Foundation said it will improve its scrutiny of donations to two Baltimore Police Department funds maintained by the foundation.

The Arnolds' initial gift was earmarked for Persistent Surveillance Systems, the company conducting the flights, but top officials at the Community Foundation said they did not realize the money would be used for a secret program. The money came with a notation that it was for the Police Department "to purchase community support program wide area imagery system surveillance for city of Baltimore for Jan. 2016."

"We need to engage in further scrutiny," said Thomas E. Wilcox, president of the Baltimore Community Foundation, who said officials did not see "any red flags."

"The surprise we all had about what turned out to be a secret surveillance — it came as a surprise to us, and we're sorry about that," Wilcox said.

The obscurity of the effort has rankled elected officials.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Public Safety Committee Chairman Warren Branch and Vice Chairman Brandon M. Scott will hold a hearing on the matter "as soon as possible," said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young.

The council members say they are not necessarily opposed to the surveillance operation, which has the potential to help document wrongdoing from gun crimes to police misconduct. But they say such monitoring of the public's movements should be discussed by citizens first.

"When you're dealing with the public's trust, you have to have transparency," Davis said Thursday, adding that police officials now understand the need to make the program public. "Obviously, a mistake was made, and I think they acknowledge that."

Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said he was meeting with Police Commissioner Kevin Davis about the surveillance.

"He will be providing me with a thorough review of the program," the Baltimore Democrat said. "That this program has been operating for months in secret is concerning. ... We must vet this program with the help of organizations like the ACLU and NAACP Legal Defense Fund to determine if there is a violation of people's constitutional rights."

Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems has for months been testing sophisticated surveillance cameras aboard a small Cessna airplane flying high above Baltimore, the Police Department acknowledged this week. The arrangement was kept secret in part because it never appeared before the city's spending board and was paid for through private donations.

Unlike high-profile surveillance tactics — such as body cameras worn by police and pole cameras on street corners — the department's use of the surveillance plane was not disclosed publicly. The police did not brief Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, her office said.

"She was not briefed on the program at its inception," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. He said the mayor learned of the plane's existence only recently, but would not be more specific. Bloomberg Businessweek was given access to the Persistent Surveillance Systems operation and published an article about it Tuesday.

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McCarthy declined to say whether Rawlings-Blake learned about the surveillance program from the article.

The office of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby issued a statement Thursday saying a member of her staff was briefed on the program Aug. 12.

"As of today, the Baltimore City Police Department further disclosed to us that there are five open and pending cases where this surveillance technology was used," the statement said. "While this technology may be a useful investigative tool and we look forward to learning more about it, we are currently working with the Police Department to determine what information can be utilized at trial."

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the governor was unaware of the program.

"The administration was not informed," Douglass Mayer said.

By contrast, the Police Department's body camera program was the subject of news conferences, legislation, a task force, a series of public meetings and public procurement process.

Davis, the council president's spokesman, said Young was surprised to learn of the surveillance operations.

"He wants to hear about the program," Davis said. The police will be called to provide a "full accounting of the program, what it's done, and what's going on with it."

"We haven't had a public accounting of the program," Davis said. "The chair and the vice chair of the Public Safety Committee will be working to make that happen as soon as possible."

Branch said he was scheduling an oversight meeting after conferring with Scott.

"The commissioner keeps talking about transparency, but every time we turn around, there's something else where we're left on the outside," Branch said. "It's the way this administration has always handled things. They never reach out. You have to pull information out of the administration."

Scott said the oversight hearing would focus on the surveillance plane, but also the recent U.S. Justice Department report that found discriminatory policing in Baltimore. He said the hearing would be in September.

Justice Department representatives made no mention of the surveillance plane, and federal officials declined to say Thursday whether they knew of the monitoring.

In the Justice Department report, investigators said police practices in Baltimore focus "law enforcement actions on low-income, minority communities" and encourage officers to have "unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members."

Persistent Surveillance Systems' flights come on the heels of revelations that the FBI provided aircraft for surveillance flights over Baltimore in the weeks after the rioting of 2015. FBI aircraft made 10 flights and logged more than 36 hours, mostly at night.

But the private company's fights over the city have far surpassed the FBI's limited use of aerial surveillance in Baltimore.

The company conducted 100 hours of surveillance in January and February and 200 hours of surveillance between June and this month, police said Wednesday. It will continue conducting surveillance for several weeks before the Police Department evaluates its effectiveness and decides whether to continue the program.

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Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, said his nonprofit agreed to facilitate the $240,000 portion of the grant on the condition that it be allowed to evaluate the program.

That review, which he said could be completed in as little as a month, will not be a rigorous, scientific study but a "policy analysis" looking at the program's effectiveness for policing and the concerns it raises, including privacy, Bueermann said. It will also include a set of recommendations for other agencies in the country that might be considering such programs, he said.

"And I have to believe that one of those recommendations is going to be, 'Before you do this, make sure the public knows about it and hold some public meetings," Bueermann said.

Police spokesman T.J. Smith said the plane's cameras can record footage of 32 square miles. He compared the program to an expansion of the city's CitiWatch system of street-level cameras.

When crime cameras were first installed in Baltimore in 2005 under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, they numbered fewer than 200 and were largely confined to high-crime areas. The city's network has grown to 696, including cameras at the East Baltimore Development Inc. project and surrounding the Horseshoe Casino.

Two years ago, city officials announced that they were expanding their public surveillance network to include private security cameras that could quadruple the number of digital eyes on neighborhoods.

Expansions of the CitiWatch system — even those funded through grants and donations — are typically approved in public at the city's Board of Estimates meetings. For instance, in July, when the owner of Alameda Marketplace Shopping Center purchased five cameras for the CitiWatch system and agreed to pay the city $26,250 to add them to the network, it was voted on at a public meeting.

The police commissioner said in a statement that CitiWatch cameras have resulted in an average decline in crime of 33 percent in the small areas near each camera. He said an expansion of digital surveillance is needed in a city where there were nearly 1,000 shootings and a record high in homicides last year.

"At a time when 84 percent of our homicides occur in outdoor public spaces, it seems logical to explore opportunities to capture the brazen killers who don't think twice about gunning down their victims on our streets," Davis said. "Indeed, 43 percent of this year's killing have occurred in 'broad daylight' hours, an apparent gesture of impunity by trigger pullers who expect not to be revealed."

The surveillance plane program remains in a testing phase, the police commissioner said.

"We do not know yet if our examination of this technology will result in a recommendation to permanently pursue it, but promise a robust and inclusive community conversation," Davis said.

Police said Thursday that they do not have an estimate for when they will make a final decision on the program.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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