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Few in City Hall knew about Baltimore police surveillance program

Few in City Hall knew about Baltimore police surveillance program
Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, answers questions at a press conference Wednesday as Baltimore Police spokesman T.J. Smith looks on. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

It wasn't until media reports on aerial surveillance by the Baltimore Police Department appeared that key members of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration were briefed on the trial run — eight months after it had begun.

Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor's chief of staff, and Neal M. Janey, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, were among the officials who got a "formal briefing" for the first time Aug. 29, mayoral spokesman Anthony McCarthy told The Baltimore Sun.

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As for when the mayor found out, McCarthy declined to get specific. He repeated what he's said in recent days: She learned about the surveillance program "recently."

Since the start of this year, Persistent Surveillance Systems has used a small Cessna airplane to conduct surveillance flights over the city, recording 100 hours of footage in January and February and 200 hours between June and August. The secrecy around the program stands in contrast to other police initiatives — such as the body camera program — created amid public scrutiny.

Rawlings-Blake wasn't the only top official who didn't know about the program. Officials at all levels of government were in the dark.

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

Members of City Council, the city's General Assembly delegation and the state's congressional delegation also were uninformed.

A member of State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby's staff was first briefed on the program Aug. 12. Mosby has since called on police to halt the program.

Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe and then-City Solicitor George Nilson also didn't know about the surveillance.

The council is expected to conduct a hearing to ask police why the department did not disclose the program, which has been paid for with donations made by billionaire Texas philanthropists.

A date for the council hearing has not been set.

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