Surveillance planes could help fight crime in Baltimore

Police would use private funding with the goal of decreasing officer call response time

Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The head of an aerial surveillance company is pitching Baltimore officials on flying not one but three camera-laden planes above the city simultaneously, covering most of the city and its violent crime, he said in emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

A pair of Texas donors have stepped forward to help fund three planes and extra police, 40 local analysts and oversight personnel if there is city buy-in, the records and interviews show. The effort aims to "demonstrate the effectiveness" of such an all-seeing surveillance system in fighting crime in the city.

Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, answers questions at a news conference on the Baltimore Police Department's use of private funding to work with his company to provide aerial surveillance of Baltimore.
Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, answers questions at a news conference on the Baltimore Police Department's use of private funding to work with his company to provide aerial surveillance of Baltimore. (Photo/Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

The enlarged scope of the three-year, $6.6 million surveillance pitch was welcomed by supporters and denounced by detractors contacted by The Sun on Wednesday.

Ross McNutt of Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems said in his emails to officials in Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young's office that most City Council members had expressed their support for the surveillance planes, though several council members denied it. No decision has been made.

Each plane would be capable of recording up to 32 square miles at a time, and each would fly 45 to 50 hours a week, McNutt said.

"With these three coverage areas, we would be able to cover areas that include 80 to 90% of the murders and shootings in Baltimore," McNutt wrote in an email last month to Sheryl Goldstein, Young's deputy chief of staff.

The work would cost $2.2 million a year, said McNutt, whose company previously flew a single surveillance plane over Baltimore as part of a secret pilot program in 2016.

That funding would cover the cost of putting the planes up, additional police officers to work cases aided by the surveillance, independent oversight of the program's privacy measures and a University of Baltimore-led evaluation of the program's "effectiveness in supporting investigations and deterring crime in the community," McNutt wrote.

McNutt said the program costs would be covered by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, who also funded the 2016 pilot program. John Arnold, in a statement, confirmed his strong interest in funding the program but said nothing is certain yet.

"While we have not formally committed to additional funding, we have expressed significant interest in a proposal to restart the program if it has support from Baltimore city leaders and the broader community," he said. "We will wait to see a formal proposal before making a firm commitment."

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, referred questions about the proposal to Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison.

"We're allowing the commissioner to run the police department because he's a law enforcement expert," Davis said.

After Harrison met with McNutt last month, he said McNutt and others "gave an excellent presentation" but that there "is some work to be done" and he had not made a decision on whether to pursue a collaboration again. A spokesman said Wednesday that Harrison's position has not changed.

Several members of the City Council said they did not know about the latest plans McNutt has proposed, and took issue with his contention that "most if (not) all council members in private expressed support" for the plane.

Council President Brandon Scott, who McNutt specifically named as being a supporter, said he told McNutt before a contentious public hearing on the plane in October that he was "indifferent" to the technology. Since then, he said, he has seen no evidence it worked to reduce crime when a plane secretly flew over the city in 2016.

Scott suggested if donors want to provide $6.6 million toward the crime fight, they should spend it on "proven" tools. For instance, less than $2.5 million, he said, could buy 40 new CitiWatch cameras and 60 new license-plate readers.

The city is on track to see more than 300 homicides for the fifth year in a row.

The 2016 pilot program was halted amid criticism of its secrecy and condemnations from civil liberties advocates who say the system represents a sweeping overreach of surveillance that violates individuals' rights.

In an interview, McNutt said his latest proposal has support from dozens of victims, community organizations and business groups desperate for solutions. Earlier this month, Gov. Larry Hogan endorsed the city's use of a surveillance plane.

Supporters "see it as the best thing for Baltimore, and they don't want to see Baltimore miss out on this opportunity," McNutt said. "It's personal to them."

Millie Brown, a former Johns Hopkins Hospital employee who founded Tears of a Mother's Cry, an organization that supports mothers who have lost children to gun violence, said she is "110% behind" McNutt's plans, as are many of the women her organization serves.

"Having the eye in the sky is a no-brainer with all of the bloodshed that we have in our city. We have someone that's offered to pay for it," Brown said. "There are so many murders and robberies that could have been solved if we would have had that plane up in the sky."

Besides Scott, other council members said they haven't heard much about the program since the October hearing.

"I'm among those who publicly asked questions and have not gotten any answers," said Councilman Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, chair of the public safety committee. "If anybody on anything wants my support, they're going to have to answer the questions I have in order for me to make an informed decision."

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, has been a vocal critic of McNutt's technology in Baltimore. On Wednesday, he said the latest proposal shows that the program is intended to capture as much as possible and, once introduced, would be constantly capable of expanding.

"What was one plane is now three, and the coverage is, instead of half the city, the entire city, and the duration of surveillance is now the entirety of the daylight hours, essentially," he said. "What is being created is the permanent surveillance of everywhere that everyone in Baltimore goes every time they walk out the door. That has always been the design and intent and this further clarifies it. And that is something that simply should never be done in a free country, period."

McNutt said he is more than happy to brief anyone on the project, and already has held dozens of community meetings. He said Rocah's concerns, echoed in the community, are based on fear more than fact, and has repeatedly stressed his efforts to protect people's privacy rights, including in his emails to officials.

"We have an extensive privacy protection program including limiting the resolution to 1 pixel per person so there is no identifying information on a person only a single dot," McNutt wrote in an email sent to Rikki Spector, the former City Council member who has been an outspoken proponent of a surveillance plane program. It was forwarded to Goldstein and Ganesha Martin, head of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice. "We look only at locations of reported crimes. We are not predicting crime but only responding to them."

Yet there would be more analysts assigned to respond to crime, and they would be tapped into the city's new ShotSpotter system, McNutt said. That would allow them to put eyes on the locations of shootings faster than ever before, and then follow potential suspects from the scene and backward and forward through time.

The system can also spring into action in response to 911 calls, McNutt said.

"In both cases we can 'rewind time' and watch the crimes occur and follow the people and vehicles from the crime scene to the houses (they) come from and go to and the routes they take," McNutt wrote in an Aug. 9 email to Goldstein.

McNutt said his technology has been used to secure confessions. In about 300 hours of flight in 2016, the pilot plane captured five homicides and 18 shootings, including two police shootings, he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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