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Baltimore City Council agrees to hearing on returning surveillance plane to city's skies

The Baltimore City Council’s public safety committee has agreed to hold a hearing next month about whether the city should authorize a surveillance plane to return to the city’s skies to film criminal activity.

For more than a year, Ross McNutt, founder of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, and his allies have been visiting community associations, churches, businesses and government agencies in Baltimore trying to build support for the surveillance, which ended in 2016 after its secret program was revealed.

McNutt pointed to an FBI report this week that showed Baltimore had the highest murder rate of any American city last year as fresh evidence the plane is needed.

“Baltimore is the murder capital of the U.S.,” McNutt said Thursday. “Fifty-six murders per 100,000 is more than twice all but two major U.S. cities. If that does not get the Baltimore City Council and leadership to act, there is little we can do to help.”

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee, said he scheduled the hearing at the request of City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young — despite his own concerns about the use of a surveillance plane.

Scott said he was skeptical about the method’s effectiveness in fighting crime and believed it could be a waste of resources. Officials with Persistent Surveillance Systems have said they have collected enough private donations to keep the plane aloft for a year, but would charge the city $1.6 million annually after that.

“I’m having a hearing at the behest of the council president. He requested information about the plane,” Scott said. “There are a lot of questions about whether we should be putting so many resources into it.”

The hearing is set for Oct. 16 at 4 p.m. Company officials will talk about the program and answer questions from committee members.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the council president is not endorsing use of a surveillance plane. He said it’s merely a hearing for the public to get more information.

“There are some folks who believe it could be a useful tool,” Davis said. “The council is going to do its job, which is to hold an oversight hearing so the public can hear more about it.”

The council has no authority to independently bring back the plane, Davis said. It would need the backing of Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Pugh said in February she was open to bringing back the plane, and her spokesman confirmed Thursday her position remains the same.

“If the community asks for this and the community wants this and the police department feels it’s a good tool, I’m listening,” Pugh said in February. “They don’t need to convince me. When things bubble up from the community, I think you have to listen.”

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, has called the surveillance plane a “permanent eye in the sky” that violates Baltimoreans’ privacy.

“The fact that the city or City Council would even consider this is beyond appalling,” Rocah said Thursday. “It is the technological equivalent of having a police officer follow every resident every time he or she exits a building. No one in Baltimore would ever tolerate that kind of invasion of privacy in real life, and we should not tolerate its technological equivalent.”

McNutt has argued that privacy rights aren’t violated, in part because the cameras do not record enough detail to identify individuals. He’s said people look like bushes from the sky. But the cameras can track movement, and are useful for following cars leaving the scene of crimes.

The program uses a bank of cameras mounted inside a small Cessna flown at roughly 8,000 feet to capture footage of 32 square miles at a time.

Persistent Surveillance Systems flew a plane for the Baltimore Police Department for hundreds of hours in 2016. But police did not disclose the program to the public nor, initially, to elected officials, including then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The operation was funded by Houston philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, who are the major donors for another year of operation, McNutt said.

When the program’s existence was revealed in 2016, officials and others slammed the Police Department. Civil liberties advocates said the plane had allowed the government to track residents for hours without warrants and with little oversight.

The program was grounded. Police said at the time that if they were to try to resurrect it, they would make the process public.

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