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Texas philanthropists say they’re backing out of financing surveillance plane technology that flew over Baltimore

The investors who financed the surveillance plane that monitored Baltimore from the sky for two controversial trial runs are walking away from funding the technology.

In a statement released Tuesday, Arnold Ventures, a Texas philanthropy backed by billionaires Laura and John Arnold, said it would not be funding a proposed aerial surveillance program in St. Louis.

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“After 11 months of implementation, evaluation and preliminary research, we have decided against further investments in the program at this time. Therefore, Arnold Ventures will not fund the aerial investigative effort proposed in St. Louis,” the statement said.

The surveillance program, which is nearing a final vote by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and was advanced this week, would be conducted by Persistent Surveillance Systems, the same company that flew planes over Baltimore. Arnold Ventures had been discussed as a possible source of funding for the program.

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Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, said Tuesday that Arnold Ventures’ announcement “does not change our efforts, nor the people of St Louis efforts, to get us to help the people of St Louis lower their major crime rate.”

The company has other potential donors in mind, he said.

Earlier this month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Arnold Ventures would not commit to funding the St. Louis program without a commitment of public funding.

The pilot program in Baltimore took its final flight Oct. 31 and appears to be dead under a new administration. Mayor Brandon Scott said in December he had no interest in making the program permanent.

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“Most of Baltimore’s violence happens at night,” Scott said at the time. “The plane doesn’t work at night. And if you look at where we are with violence right now after having the plane, one would find it very hard to have a reason to continue it.”

In Baltimore, the six-month pilot program’s three planes, their pilots, analysts and hangar space were funded by Arnold Ventures at a cost of up to $3.7 million. The Arnolds also paid for grants to fund independent research into whether the program had an impact on Baltimore’s violent crime rate. The city has suffered more than 300 homicides each year since 2015.

The aerial surveillance technology was capable of capturing images of 32 square miles of the city for a minimum of 40 hours a week. Under rules agreed to by the city, the company and police, data collected was not supposed to be stored for more than 45 days unless it was needed for an investigation. The planes could not be used for real-time surveillance, only to look back, and no one was to be arrested solely based on images produced by the planes, police officials said when the pilot was approved.

A camera array is seen in the open door of a Cessna at Martin State Airport. The plane was used for the Aerial Investigation Research pilot program assisting the Baltimore Police Department investigate certain crimes.
A camera array is seen in the open door of a Cessna at Martin State Airport. The plane was used for the Aerial Investigation Research pilot program assisting the Baltimore Police Department investigate certain crimes. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

The American Civil Liberties Union sought to block the plane’s use, citing privacy concerns. A federal judge ruled against the ACLU in April, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in December to reconsider the case.

That same month, an audit released by the Policing Project of New York University said the surveillance plane project stuck to the rules put in place to police it “for the most part,” but the report also noted several times the surveillance system was used outside its mission in a way that could potentially infringe on civil rights.

The audit was critical of the fact that the city’s Board of Estimates, not City Council, approved the project. The board, which controls Baltimore’s spending, voted 3-2 in favor of the pilot in April over objections from the ACLU and other civil liberties advocates.

The surveillance program collected data on a broad swath of city residents, most of whom had done nothing wrong, making it important for the program to be approved by the city’s entire elective body, the audit found.

The audit also found police relied on “supplemental reports” to justify following suspects beyond the point of an initial crime. It said that police used the planes to track suspects long after the initial crime, sometimes for multiple days, which was not approved by the initial agreement.

The plane’s footage was to be used in combination with closed-circuit cameras on the ground and license plate readers. In December, Scott said he believed the city hadn’t invested to the point where that would pay off. Cameras are missing or outdated in certain places, while license plate readers are not properly deployed, he said.

A separate study expected to measure the plane’s effectiveness in solving crimes in Baltimore has not yet been completed.

After Baltimore’s six-month pilot program ended Oct. 31, Baltimore Police threatened to end the surveillance program in November, claiming that “serious breaches of confidentiality” were jeopardizing the city’s relationship with Persistent Surveillance Systems, according to an email obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Police said they received repeated requests from the media to corroborate information about the program allegedly shared by the company, despite police chief of staff Eric Melancon telling owner Ross McNutt multiple times that such information needed to be signed off on by the department, according to the email.

“The continuing failure to maintain the confidentiality of unverified data relating to the [Aerial Investigative Research] program, and specifically the unwillingness to abide by repeated instructions that BPD must approve all public communications is disturbing,” the department told the company in an email.

The surveillance plane first flew over Baltimore as part of a secret pilot program in 2016. Those flights were also funded by the Arnolds, although no approval was ever sought by the city’s Board of Estimates. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was unaware of the test as was Baltimore City Council and State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

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