Sun Investigates

Baltimore surveillance plane operator had urged police to be upfront with public

Persistent Surveillance Systems' wide area camera imagery captures wide swaths of Baltimore at once. The camera has collected more than 300 hours of surveillance footage over eight months.

Before the first plane left the ground, the company operating an aerial surveillance program for the Baltimore Police Department recommended that the department conduct focus groups and other outreach efforts to gauge community acceptance and concerns.

But the department did not hold any such meetings.


By the time the program was revealed publicly a year later, in August, it had collected more than 300 hours of surveillance footage secretly over eight months and police still were trying to figure out how to inform the community, according to emails obtained Thursday by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

The Ohio-based company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, had included concerns about public acceptance of the program and the need to brief residents on its capabilities from the start of its communications with police, according to the records. The company was eager to begin, but was upfront about potential problems.


"There are many areas to consider including the ability to obtain approval from police and city leadership and the likely community reaction," wrote Ross McNutt, the company's president, in an Aug. 4, 2015, email to Lt. Sam Hood, head of the Police Department's CitiWatch program. "We have had trouble getting leadership decisions because of the potential controversy. The community acceptance would be a significant part of the evaluation."

McNutt continued: "As part of this effort we would fully support community outreach and briefings and fully explain the system and what it does and the privacy policies we will be operating under."

Around the same time, McNutt sent Hood a draft proposal outlining how the program could work, which included a section titled "Community and Legal Community Acceptance Evaluation."

"We plan to conduct a series of focus groups to evaluate the potential acceptance of the wide area airborne surveillance system through real world results during operations," the outline reads.

But McNutt also knew that the privately funded program was moving ahead out of public view. In an email to Hood on Sept. 11, 2015, McNutt included an assessment of Baltimore as a viable host of the technology, writing that "Baltimore would like to conduct the test quickly and quietly" in the coming months, including as the trials of several officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray were playing out in the city.

The company's airborne technology is capable of recording footage of about 32 square miles of the city at a time. The footage collected then can be reviewed by analysts, who can move back and forth through time to try to track individuals or vehicles arriving at or leaving crime scenes. The company says the technology is also useful in monitoring large-scale events.

Police have praised the program as effective in producing leads in serious crimes such as shootings and homicides. But civil liberties advocates have questioned its constitutionality and its potential for misuse in violating citizens' privacy rights.

As donors were lined up and the program gained traction, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was asked to approve it. On Oct. 16, 2015, Hood sent McNutt another email that started, "Good News," explaining that Davis had given the program the green light.


When it was finally revealed in August, the public — and many others — were caught off guard, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the City Council, prosecutors and public defenders, and other elected officials.

Many officials criticized the Police Department for its lack of transparency around the program.

Asked Thursday about the early recommendations from Persistent Surveillance for public input, T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said police were planning on publicly discussing the program — which is still in a pilot phase — before it was revealed but never got the chance.

Davis has "discussed the need to test and then speak about it," Smith said. "We've said, and will say again, if we had it to do over again, we would do some things differently."

Reached late Thursday night, McNutt had no comment and forwarded all questions to Baltimore police.

More recent emails show that police were planning to discuss the program with the public but hadn't gotten around to it.


In a slide presentation dated Aug. 12, Hood wrote that the program's goals were to "solve typically unsolvable crimes" and provide "increased deterrence through public awareness of program at the right time."

The slides showed the program had three phases: a technical evaluation between January and February that found that the system "worked well"; an operational phase between June and August where police reviewed 102 investigative cases in which the surveillance program was used and found it "showed value"; and an "operational employment" phase, where it would start being used.

As part of the third phase, police would give briefings on the program to detectives, prosecutors and other partner agencies. They would make a public announcement and involve the community, the slides showed. Finally, data acquired in the program would be used officially in criminal investigations.

By mid-August, police had about 310 recorded hours from about 420 flight hours and 102 completed investigative briefs based on data obtained from the surveillance program. The investigations included homicides, shootings, officer-involved shootings, stabbings and carjackings.

Multiple city lawyers had reviewed the program. Police saw it as no different from other aerial surveillance like the department's Foxtrot helicopter program, which has been running since 1970. Recordings not needed for investigations would be stored no longer than 45 days.

The documents show that police were aware of concerns that could arise using the program, such as filming people in backyards or focusing only on areas with minorities. McNutt said the company was even seeking input from "partner defense attorneys … to look for holes."


Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Catherine Rentz contributed to this article.