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Baltimore Police threatened to end spy plane program in November, claiming ‘disturbing’ leaks of information

The Baltimore Police Department threatened to end a controversial aerial surveillance program in November, claiming that “serious breaches of confidentiality” were jeopardizing the city’s relationship with the Ohio-based company that operates the private spy planes.

Police said they received repeated requests from the media to corroborate information about the program allegedly shared by Persistent Surveillance Systems, despite police chief of staff Eric Melancon telling owner Ross McNutt multiple times that such information needed to be signed off on by the department.

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“The continuing failure to maintain the confidentiality of unverified data relating to the [Aerial Investigative Research] program, and specifically the unwillingness to abide by repeated instructions that BPD must approve all public communications is disturbing,” the department told the company in an email.

“As you are aware, the professional services agreement between BPD and PSS ... affords BPD certain termination rights. Should another incident of this sort arise, no matter how minor, PSS should expect that BPD will exercise those rights.”

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Eric Melancon, chief of staff for the Baltimore Police Department, left and Ross McNutt, founder of the Persistent Surveillance Systems, look over the plane used as part of an aerial surveillance pilot program.
Eric Melancon, chief of staff for the Baltimore Police Department, left and Ross McNutt, founder of the Persistent Surveillance Systems, look over the plane used as part of an aerial surveillance pilot program. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

The Nov. 10 email from Lisa Walden, the department’s chief legal counsel, to Wayne E. Waite, an attorney for the company, was obtained Tuesday by The Baltimore Sun. Waite and other Persistent Surveillance Systems representatives did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Baltimore Police did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on the email.

The city’s email followed the Oct. 31 conclusion of a six-month pilot program, paid for by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, through their organization Arnold Ventures, to study whether the overhead surveillance planes could help lower Baltimore’s violent crime rates. The city has had more than 300 homicides each year since 2015.

The technology is capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for at least 40 hours a week. But it has faced legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and lacks the support of Mayor Brandon Scott, who voted against the planes’ trial as council president earlier this year.

Noting that the planes do not fly at night, the city’s new Democratic mayor said this week that Baltimore “would find it very hard to have a reason to continue it.”

The police department’s email to the company reveals for the first time city officials’ frustration with the planes’ operator over the sharing of “unverified statistics concerning [the program’s] efficacy as a tool to combat violent crime.”

The information allegedly had been leaked to the media following a meeting of local community leaders that had been organized by Persistent Surveillance Systems, according to the email.

“This is the second known instance of sharing unvalidated information about the program’s efficacy to an external group without prior authorization from BPD,” the police department attorney wrote.

The email chastising the company was sent under the previous mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat whose administration authorized the pilot program after it received the conditional support of Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. The commissioner said at the time he would ground the planes if they did not produce results.

An earlier pilot program of the technology in 2016, uncovered in a Bloomberg report, was halted amid criticism of its secrecy, as well as condemnations from civil liberties advocates who say it violated individuals’ rights.

While the new mayor does not support the use of private surveillance planes in Baltimore, attorneys in the city law department could soon find themselves in the awkward position of defending the program in the Fourth Circuit appellate court, which agreed last week to reconsider the case.

Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore, who will become the city’s first chief equity officer in January, said Tuesday that the city attorneys plan to argue that “procedurally, the matter is moot.”

“We’re going to press that,” Moore said.

But in the event the federal judges want to hear each side’s substantive arguments, the city’s attorneys will have no choice but to continue arguing that the surveillance planes are constitutional — even if Baltimore doesn’t plan to use them, she said.

“We will defend it just as vigorously as we did in the underlying court,” Moore said.

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