City Council members grill spy plane company, BPD over privacy concerns, lobbying

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Persistent Surveillance Systems CEO Ross McNutt testifies before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

At the start of last night’s public hearing at City Hall about a proposal to return the controversial spy plane to Baltimore’s skies, Councilman Brandon Scott made it clear he and his colleagues wield little power, ultimately, over allowing the Baltimore Police Department and Persistent Surveillance Systems to collaborate again.

“All of us here, we can’t have a choice,” said the Public Safety Committee chairman, addressing the mayor’s chief of government relations, Karen Stokes, and offering a reminder that the police department remains under state control. “We can’t say that the council should have any authority over it.”

Nevertheless, he and his colleagues did seize the hearing as a chance to share their own worries about a privately funded plane surveilling the city, linking up with police via CitiWatch cameras to help them catch criminals and sharing data between private and public entities in the process.

Scott raised doubts about the proven effectiveness of Persistent Surveillance Systems’ pilot program, which operated in two separate three-month stints in 2016. The program was ultimately announced (and quickly ended) after the fact when it was all brought to light by a Bloomberg story, not by city officials or police.

Scott noted only two of just over 100 cases that the plane is said to have assisted with via aerial evidence have been publicly disclosed, making it difficult to know whether it’s really helping police catch criminals.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett (District 8) expressed concern over Persistent Surveillance Systems employees having access to police department recordings from the plane—including files archived in a drive kept in a “top-secret safe” at the company’s Dayton, Ohio headquarters, CEO Ross McNutt said—and potentially using the footage for nefarious reasons like tracking a significant other or helping someone to track a political opponent.

Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (District 5) highlighted the company’s branding shift after its activity in Baltimore was exposed. Persistent Surveillance Systems has since launched a grassroots campaign to bring back the plane, marketing its services as the Community Support Program, pushed by a handful of outspoken advocates.

And while McNutt said he finds it “disgusting” to pay lobbyists, he admitted under questioning from Schleifer that his firm has been paying one advocate, Archie Williams, “a few thousand” dollars to cover advocacy expenses, which Councilman Zeke Cohen (District 1) said amounts to grassroots lobbying.

Cohen himself said it was “just sort of disturbing” to learn about the plane from the news, not officials, in 2016, and without any prior public discussion about it. While the $1.6 million annual expense was funded–and could still be for several more years–by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, Cohen asked what costs would fall on taxpayers when that time is up.

“I’ve heard a little bit too much of, It’s gonna be free for awhile and then we’ll negotiate later,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an acceptable approach.”

At perhaps the most philosophic level of concern, Councilman Ryan Dorsey (District 3) rebuked the idea that most Baltimoreans would want to be surveilled from above at all hours.

“This sounds to me like an absurd level of Big Brother-ism,” he said, drawing some applause. “This is bonkers, man.”

The surveillance plane’s two “orbit areas” over Baltimore. Photo via Police Foundation/BPD.

Police and McNutt, who drew his own applause after touting his goal to help police solve more murders amid a spike in killings, together offered a mix of answers and concessions.

To Scott’s point about the pilot program’s unproven effectiveness, McNutt cited his own data that the plane’s camera witnessed five murders, 18 shootings, two officer-involved shootings and multiple rapes, aggravated assaults and armed robberies, and was able to identify 73 “primary vehicles” as involved in the shootings or killings, and 44 final locations of “what they considered to be primary suspects.” BPD, Maj. Sam Hood, director of the CitiWatch program, said “we’re still in the proof of concept” phase to determine its efficacy in catching criminals.

Hood admitted to Burnett that it’s possible a Persistent Surveillance Systems employee could have misused archived data for personal reasons during the pilot, as no audit had been performed addressing that capability. He did note BPD’s memorandum of understanding with the company doesn’t allow that use, though he said he was unsure of any certain legal consequences aside from violating the MOU.

And on the lobbying end, the group that Persistent Surveillance Systems “donated” to, McNutt said, is Communities with Solutions, led by Archie Williams and Joyous Jones. McNutt defended spending that money to help put on 31 community meetings around Baltimore to spread awareness of what his company is offering, and to help out Williams with expenses. He also said many business groups that spend similarly would take offense to the use of the word “lobbying,” though that earned little sympathy from Schleifer.

The councilman pointedly replied that he had attended some of those meetings, unbeknownst to McNutt. “What’s disappointing to me is the lack of forthright information that was being presented,” Schleifer said. He added that one of the organizations that sponsored a meeting was “quite distraught” after they read up on the company and found its history in Baltimore had not been disclosed.

Siding with McNutt, local supporters of aerial surveillance have argued it’s a solid option to help catch killers at a time when police can’t stem the tide of murders, now at 250 on the year.

“Something is better than nothing,” activist Christina Flowers said before the hearing began. “People getting shot up every day by the twos and threes, so if these individuals are willing to come into Baltimore and do something, it’s better than a plan that we don’t have.”

Williams testified that it could be “very, very beneficial on both sides” by also monitoring police for misconduct—one of the selling points McNutt’s firm has used in its campaign. McNutt noted his company has offered its footage to federal public defenders to verify and push back against an officer’s statement for obtaining a search warrant.

“It helps the person that’s innocent and it helps the person that’s guilty,” Williams said, later adding, “I don’t have Johnnie Cochran with me, I don’t have Billy Murphy with me… I need this to be implemented to know that people that look like me, fighting in places that look like this” can be protected.

Among the last to testify was ACLU senior staff attorney David Rocah, who vehemently opposed the idea of bringing the plane back, echoing Dorsey’s privacy concerns. “It is the technological equivalent of having a police officer follow you every time you walk outside.”

As Scott noted, it’s on police, with input from the mayor’s office, to decide what’s next. That remains up in the air.

“If it has been effective and BPD thinks we should move forward then I’m sure we would support an initiative like that,” Stokes, of the mayor’s office, said last night.

“If the community doesn’t want it, then we don’t want to do it,” Maj. Hood testified shortly thereafter.

Brandon Soderberg contributed to this report.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
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2 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Rocah, I”d love to have a police officer follow me every time I walk outside. Then I’d feel a whole lot safer walking to and from work, by the open air drug market on my corner, that despite the repeated calls to 911 about, has only resulted in on patrol car driving by once, not stopping, just driving by. So yeah, bring back the planes because this city is in crisis.

  2. In addition, it is time we begin to equip all squad cars with RPGs. I would anticipate there will be the occasional friendly fire incident but clearly the pros would outweigh the cons by a mile. Frankly, as long the officer who discharged his RPG did so in good faith – the same standard we already apply in many similar circumstances – then rare targetting errors should not be a huge consequence. Such errors would be quite rare and I would think that as long as the subject accepting delivery of the errant RPG was not anyone of consequence, such incidents could be handled as a matter of course with a minimum of paperwork and resultant downtime. This would be both fair and cost effective. I think we would all agree that our law enforcement officers need to have a range of weapons systems avaiable to them applicable to a variety of situational needs. We should not hobbcobble our officers with outdated or underpowered weapons systems.

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