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Baltimore’s surveillance plane contract could be terminated by spending board this week

Baltimore’s grounded surveillance plane program will face a vote from the city’s spending board this week as members consider whether to formally terminate the city’s agreement.

The controversial pilot program, funded by a pair of Texas philanthropists, took its final flight Oct. 31 in Baltimore. For six months up until then, several planes owned by Persistent Surveillance Systems circled the city’s skies, capturing images of 32 square miles in hopes of reducing the violent crime rate.

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The temporary program received only narrow approval in the first place. Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted 3-2 in April to begin the program over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates.

Since then, a new mayor has taken office. Democrat Brandon Scott, the city’s former City Council president who cast one of the two votes against the program in April, said in December that he had no intention of continuing the program.

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Now, the board, three seats of which are controlled by Scott, will formally consider the termination of the agreement Wednesday.

“The Baltimore Police Department has no plan to renew or extend the program for the foreseeable future,” the spending board’s agenda states. “It is therefore requested that the Board of Estimates authorize the Baltimore Police Department to exercise its unilateral termination right.”

While the pilot program was completed, Baltimore’s contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems was effective for a year after the board’s approval. According to the city comptroller’s office, it would expire until October 2021.

Scott has argued the planes’ images do not capture the city’s peak hours for violence, which happen at night. The city’s agreement with Persistent Surveillance Systems called for the plan to only fly during daytime hours.

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Scott also maintained the city had not invested enough in surveillance technology on the ground to make the camera’s images effective in fighting crime.

“If you look at where we are with violence right now after having the plane, one would find it very hard to have a reason to continue it,” Scott said in December.

Last week, Arnold Ventures, the company that financed the surveillance program, announced it was walking away from funding the technology elsewhere. Persistent Surveillance Systems was nearing a deal in St. Louis to fly a similar surveillance program.

The ACLU sought in court to block the plane’s use, citing privacy concerns, but a federal judge ruled against the group. However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in December to reconsider the case and oral arguments are set for March.

However, acting City Solicitor Jim Shea said Monday that if the board approves the contract termination, the city plans to promptly file a “suggestion of mootness” for the 4th Circuit to consider whether the case should end. The city would argue the case is moot because the surveillance planes are no longer operating in Baltimore and would not be part of any contractual agreement with the city.

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