“It should have not taken the city council to look at the implementation of this program,” but it will be the council that will take the heat, said Councilman Brandon Scott, the committee’s chair. He said the council is vetting “a company that does not have the city’s best interest at heart.”
Ross McNutt, founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, said he’s committed to reducing crime in Baltimore, and that he welcomed the council hearing in order to answer questions and provide information about the surveillance program.
The Ohio-based company operated the surveillance program in 2016 with a small Cessna airplane that collected and stored hundreds of hours of footage from scanning city neighborhoods. After the short-lived demonstration program was made public months later in a media report, many expressed outrage.
The Baltimore City Council’s public safety committee holds a hearing Tuesday on possibly bringing back the controversial, previously undisclosed surveillance plane that police said was used to capture criminal activity.
McNutt has been trying to bring back the program at a cost of $1.63 million a year — a cost he said would be covered for at least three years by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold.
Records from the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation show that McNutt registered his business in the state in February 2016, paying a $100 fee. But its current status is “forfeited,” and records also list the business as “not in good standing.”
McNutt said the company simply didn’t renew the business license in Maryland and the fact that the company let it lapse is not a major concern.
“We’re not currently doing business in Baltimore,” he said. “We don’t need to register in the state of Maryland.”
Several council members at the public safety meeting expressed concerns about the surveillance program, questioning its efficacy and McNutt’s motivations for bringing it to Baltimore.
“Somebody who has the ability to spy on the whole city has to be held on the highest levels of accountability and transparency,” Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said.
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The revelation that a private company has been conducting secret aerial surveillance on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department — collecting and storing footage from city neighborhoods in the process — caused confusion, concern and outrage among elected officials and civil liberties advocates on Wednesday.
The program has drawn support from residents who believe it can help fight crime in a city that has endured unprecedented violence in recent years. But it’s drawn criticism from others, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has opposed the program because it was not disclosed publicly, and because it involves the surveillance of all citizens.
McNutt said the surveillance plane provided information in more than 100 cases, including five murders, 18 shootings and two police-involved shootings over 12½ days of flying.
The information led to arrests in two homicides, but Scott noted that one of the homicide cases was dropped. Meanwhile, he said, half of the other cases were traffic-related.
“That’s the key to me, the data doesn’t add up,” Scott said.
The city council has no authority to independently bring back the plane. It would need the backing of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh. A spokesman for Pugh said Wednesday that the mayor is not advocating for the program, but would consider it if there was strong community support.
7:30 p.m. Oct. 18: This story was updated to better reflect why the aerial surveillance program stopped operating.