Baltimore City Council holds contentious hearing on bringing back police surveillance plane

At a contentious Baltimore City Council meeting Tuesday, residents booed in opposition or cheered in support during discussions about possibly bringing back the controversial, previously undisclosed surveillance plane that police said was used to capture criminal activity.

Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Ohio-based company that operated the plane in 2016 until it was grounded by the controversy, wants to reinstate the program at a cost of $1.63 million a year. Company founder Ross McNutt said Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold have offered to cover the costs for at least three years.

McNutt, who has been meeting with community associations and other groups to rally support for bringing back the program, defended the plane as another crime-fighting tool for a city that has seen unprecedented violence in recent years. Several City Council members grilled Ross on Tuesday, expressing concerns about the program’s effectiveness, citizens’ privacy protections, the long-term costs and how data collected by the private company could be accessed for other purposes.

McNutt told council members he chose Baltimore to serve as a “shining example” of what his company could do for a city to drive down crime.

“It’s about solving, deterring and reducing major crime crimes in our city,” McNutt said.

The local program was launched initially in January 2016 with a small Cessna airplane that collected and stored hundreds of hours of footage from scanning city neighborhoods. But the plane was grounded after many expressed outrage that the program was only made public months later through an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, which received exclusive access to the company's testing.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, scheduled Tuesday’s hearing at the request of City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who did not attend because he was out of town. The hearing at the packed council chambers lasted at least four hours.

Scott has expressed concerns about the program, including its cost and effectiveness. He asked McNutt for specific data about when the plane resulted in arrests and convictions.

Scott also said the council does not have any power to reinstate the program or prevent it from happening, saying that the decision was the mayor’s and the Police Department’s. The hearing merely provides “political cover” for a controversial program, he said.

Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer questioned McNutt about his efforts to gain community support, including whether McNutt’s company has paid anyone to lobby for the program.

McNutt said his company has provided “some donations” to local community groups for pizzas and snacks, but said those residents “would take great offense” to being called paid lobbyists for the program.

Some residents, including Susan Simon of Northwest Baltimore, testified at the hearing that the plane is necessary to curb violence. Simon said other efforts have not made “a significant impact on the outrageous numbers of murders. It is technology we need.”

Others, however, expressed frustration that money spent on the plane would not go to crime prevention programs, such as activities for youth. The plane, they said, would only be used to track activity after a crime has occurred.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey questioned whether the surveillance program would benefit a city where police and community relations are already strained and where residents often don’t trust the police. He called the program “an absurd level of Big-Brotherism.”

Lt. Sam Hood, head of the Police Department's CitiWatch program, which operated with the plane, said, “If the community doesn’t want to, then we don’t want to do it.”

A report completed last year found that the plane provided potential leads in various crimes and helped advanced investigations of seven shootings and three homicides. The report, however, also suggested "a rigorous evaluation" to determine how to make it cost-effective and transparent.

McNutt said Tuesday that the plane allowed analysts to observe five murders, 18 shootings, and provided tracks for 72 cars involved in the shootings and the locations of 44 of those cars.

The pilot program was initially kept secret in part because it never appeared before the city's spending board. It was paid for by private donations handled by the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has opposed the program because it was not disclosed publicly, and because it involves the surveillance of all citizens.

ACLU staff attorney David Rocah, who attended Tuesday’s hearing,said previously the program is "virtually equivalent to attaching a GPS tracker to each and every one of us every time we walk out of our house or office building."

The council was also scheduled to discuss a “Baltimore Crime Gun Intelligence Center” to coordinate information between Baltimore police and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as an “expansive auxiliary police program” and the expanded use of telephone and online crime reporting in Baltimore, according to the meeting’s agenda.

Amid a spike in violence at the end of September, Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said the department has been working to expand the telephone reporting unit, where citizens can report minor incidents, freeing up officers for more serious incidents.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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