Sun Investigates

Texas donors who funded Baltimore aerial surveillance once backed another criminal justice technology here

Many Baltimore residents may not have heard of Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold until it came to light last month that they had bankrolled a secret aerial surveillance program by police.

But the Arnolds' support of the pilot operation is not the first criminal justice technology they've tried to get off the ground in Maryland.


The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has spent more than $1 million to develop a Public Safety Assessment tool that judges in three states and several cities are using to reduce the number of people sitting in jail because they cannot pay bail, especially for nonviolent offenses.

During the 2014 Maryland General Assembly session, the foundation's representatives worked with Maryland lawmakers to introduce legislation to adopt the technology for the state's judges.


The legislation was supported by Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe and prosecutors, including Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. The technology provides an algorithm that tells judges which defendants are at greater risk of committing crimes if released, and which would likely not re-offend and would show up for trial.

Other types of risk assessment technologies have been criticized for harboring racial bias.

Laura Arnold said in an interview that their foundation's tool does not take race, gender and other similar metrics into consideration.

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"The public safety assessment tool is rooted in looking at who is in the jails and why are they there. What societal values are driving us from keeping a person for up to a year in jail because that person can't pay when that alleged crime is a nonviolent crime?" Arnold said. "That really led us to ask what do we know."

Pilot tests of the assessment tool — and the surveillance technology — are intended to produce data that public officials can study and determine whether the programs are worth funding for the long term.

The Arnolds paid $360,000 for the aerial surveillance in Baltimore, where police have acknowledged using a bank of cameras aboard a privately operated Cessna airplane flying thousands of feet above the city.

"Our approach is to create alternatives that may be better than the status quo," Laura Arnold said. "We often don't have the data to understand what leads to the best outcomes."

Ultimately, the legislation failed and Maryland did not adopt the foundation's tool. Some counties have their own risk assessment tool, DeWolfe said in an email.


"But the Arnold Foundation tool is not being used anywhere as far as I know," he said.

—Doug Donovan