Donor to Baltimore police surveillance program says privacy debate 'healthy'

Laura Arnold, donor behind Baltimore aerial surveillance program, says privacy debate is 'healthy.'

The public uproar over the secrecy of the Baltimore Police Department's test of an aerial surveillance technology is a "healthy" part of the process to decide whether the city will support the program with taxpayer money, said one of the philanthropists bankrolling the initiative.

"We haven't created a position as to whether or not Baltimore should use it. This is the first of many steps to evaluate whether the technology should be used," said Laura Arnold, a Houston-based philanthropist who is paying for the surveillance with her billionaire husband, John. "No program would be successful unless they address these issues [of privacy]. They're never going to reduce crime in Baltimore or any city unless the community is part of the solution. This is all very healthy."

The couple personally gave $360,000 to the Baltimore Police Department to pay for a surveillance project that began in January by Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems. The firm has flown a single-engine airplane 8,000 feet above Baltimore with a bank of high-powered cameras to record hundreds of hours that can aid police in tracking the movements of people involved in crimes.

Police department officials have said the program was not a secret, but Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council members learned about the program only recently, after a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story revealed its existence.

The Baltimore City Council intends to hold a hearing on the program. And Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe is calling for a halt to the surveillance.

Laura Arnold said such scrutiny is crucial for the community to evaluate the value of the technology.

"As supporters of the ACLU we deeply recognize the concerns and the tradeoffs that need to be made on privacy," Arnold said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Sunday. "Not only do we fully respect and support that process; for us, we don't see it as a contradictory thing. We should have this conversation."

The Arnolds, she said, would never "presume to tell you what's best for your neighborhood."

"With the Baltimore system we became interested in it as a special tool that may or may not be successful in improving what we all consider to be unacceptable clearance rates in urban areas like Baltimore," Arnold said. "The jury is still out on if it works. It's an alternative that we should learn about: whether it's worth doing, whether communities will accept it. Does it impermissibly infringe on civil liberties? These are all important questions that need to be answered."

The couple's extensive philanthropic efforts focus on using technology and data analysis to help reform big public policy questions in criminal justice, public education and public pensions. The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimates the couple has donated $1.2 billion over the past five years personally and through their Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

The 43-year-old former corporate attorney runs the foundation full time with her 42-year-old husband, a former Enron and hedge fund manager with a fortune approaching $3 billion.

Laura Arnold said she and her husband do not attempt to dictate how institutions implement programs their foundation pays for.

"We trust local actors to make those decisions. We don't say you have to do it one way or the other," she said.

The Police Foundation in Washington, which has administered the bulk of the Arnolds' donation to the police department, is expected to produce a report on the technology by the end of next month.

"The police want to know what strategies work to keep communities safe," she said. "We facilitate that analysis so we as a society can channel resources to what works."

Clearly, current criminal justice processes are not working as effectively as possible, she said.

"What we do is try to identify models that are beneficial and that are somehow going to lead to a superior outcome for society," she said. "We do a lot of evaluation and analysis about what works and what doesn't work."

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