Ae­rial video raises is­sues

Use of foun­da­tion al­lowed sur­veil­lance to re­main se­cret Undis­closed film­ing for po­lice by pri­vate firm be­gan in Jan.

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Fen­ton and Doug Dono­van By Kevin Rec­tor and Luke Broad­wa­ter

The Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment was able to keep se­cret the fund­ing for a sur­veil­lance plane that mon­i­tored wide swaths of the city by rout­ing project funds through a pri­vate foun­da­tion — whose di­rec­tor says he was not aware of the pur­pose of the spend­ing.

ATexas-based pri­vate donor sup­plied $120,000 in­tended for the city sur­veil­lance project but de­liv­ered to the non­profit Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion, which man­ages at least two char­i­ta­ble funds for po­lice.

Thomas E. Wil­cox, pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion, said in an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day that foun­da­tion of­fi­cials did not know what the money was for.

“We did not know any­thing about a sur­veil­lance pro­gram,” Wil­cox said. “We do 3,000 grants a year. Some­one asks us to give a grant to an or­ga­ni­za­tion, whether it’s Wounded War­rior or the YMCA, we make the grant.” Ross McNutt, pres­i­dent of Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, an­swers ques­tions about his com­pany’s ae­rial sur­veil­lance of Bal­ti­more for the Po­lice Depart­ment.

The rev­e­la­tion that a pri­vate com­pany has been con­duct­ing se­cret ae­rial sur­veil­lance on be­half of the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment — col­lect­ing and stor­ing footage from city neigh­bor­hoods in the process — caused con­fu­sion, con­cern and out­rage Wed­nes­day among elected of­fi­cials and civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates.

Some de­manded an im­me­di­ate stop to the pro­gram pend­ing a full, pub­lic ac­count­ing of its ca­pa­bil­i­ties and its use in the city to date, in­clud­ing in the pros­e­cu­tion of crim­i­nal de­fen­dants. Some called it “as­tound­ing” in its abil­ity to in­trude on in­di­vid­ual pri­vacy rights, and legally ques­tion­able in terms of con­sti­tu­tional law.

Oth­ers did not fault the pro­gram but said it should have been dis­closed pub­licly be­fore it be­gan in Jan­uary.

The pro­gram — in which Ohio-based Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems has for months been test­ing so­phisti-

Asked whether the foun­da­tion should have ex­er­cised more over­sight, Wil­cox said: “We’re con­stantly mon­i­tor­ing our process and try­ing to im­prove, and we’ll go on do­ing that.”

By law in Bal­ti­more, tax­payer-funded fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions over $25,000 must go through the city’s five-mem­ber Board of Es­ti­mates for ap­proval. The money for the sur­veil­lance pro­gram car­ried out by an Ohio-based com­pany, Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, never passed through city of­fi­cials’ hands, en­abling po­lice and the donor to avoid dis­clo­sure un­til the pro­gram was de­scribed in an ar­ti­cle in Bloomberg Busi­ness­week.

On Wed­nes­day, po­lice likened the tech­nol­ogy to an ex­pan­sion of the Ci­tiWatch sur­veil­lance cam­era sys­tem, which has thou­sands of cam­eras along city streets that are mon­i­tored by a com­mand cen­ter. At a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, a po­lice spokesman brushed off ques­tions about why the tech­nol­ogy was not pre­vi­ously dis­closed, say­ing the city does not hold a news con­fer­ence ev­ery time it up­dates its Ci­tiWatch sys­tem.

Bloomberg re­ported that since Jan­uary, Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems has been fly­ing planes high over Bal­ti­more and gath­er­ing footage across 30 square miles at a time. The footage can be re­viewed to try to gather in­for­ma­tion about crimes. The firm’s founder re­ferred to the tech­nol­ogy as like “Google Earth with Tivo ca­pa­bil­ity.”

Sev­eral board mem­bers of the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion — which in­cludes rep­re­sen­ta­tives from in­sti­tu­tions such as T. Rowe Price, the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, real es­tate firms and other non­prof­its — de­clined to com­ment, say­ing that they were un­aware of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing the fund­ing.

For­mer Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who the foun­da­tion says has been a board mem­ber since 2014, said through a spokesman that since be­ing in­formed of the sur­veil­lance pro­gram, he in­tends to “look into it.”

For years, po­lice have been buy­ing equip­ment and fi­nanc­ing pro­jects us­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars do­nated to the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion. Cor­po­ra­tions such as Tar­get, Wal-Mart and Un­der Ar­mour have an­nounced con­tri­bu­tions of tens of thou­sands of dol­lars to po­lice through the foun­da­tion, though its donor lists are not themselves pub­lic.

Wil­cox said the Po­lice Depart­ment’s two funds are the Bal­ti­more Po­lice En­dow­ment Fund and the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Spe­cial Grants Fund.

In­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion shows that in 2013, un­der then-Po­lice Com­mis­sioner An­thony W. Batts, the depart­ment’s funds paid $340,000 through three grants to the Cal­i­for­nia-based con­trac­tor Lex­ipol LLC.

A Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion list says the money was for “over­haul­ing the man­ual pro­vid­ing the ba­sis for Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dures and pro­vid­ing pro­fes­sion­ally cre­ated train­ing bul­letins” — not un­like the type of con­tract work that if paid for with pub­lic funds is sub­jected to a bid process and ap­proval by the Board of Es­ti­mates. But the project’s fund­ing did not go to the Board of Es­ti­mates for ap­proval.

The Po­lice Depart­ment also pur­chased Tasers, smart­phones, com­put­ers and other equip­ment us­ing the foun­da­tion money, and paid for a study by IBM on so-called pre­dic­tive polic­ing.

Not all do­na­tions to po­lice go through the foun­da­tion. When a group of lo­cal busi­ness lead­ers contributed $2.4 mil­lion in May to re­vamp the Western Dis­trict po­lice sta­tion and its grounds, the do­na­tion went to the Board of Es­ti­mates for ap­proval.

The Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion serves as a “fis­cal spon­sor,” man­ag­ing funds for hun­dreds of groups and causes, ac­cord­ing to its web­site. It works with 800 phil­an­thropic funds and dis­burses 3,000 grants a year.

The Po­lice Depart­ment’s Spe­cial Grants Fund, through which the sur­veil­lance plane money was paid, does not ap­pear on the Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion’s web­site as a fund to which the pub­lic can do­nate.

“We have a lot of funds that don’t show up on the web­site,” Wil­cox said. He said donors would have to specif­i­cally re­quest to do­nate to the fund.

The Bal­ti­more sur­veil­lance pro­gram was funded by the Texas-based bil­lion­aire phi­lan­thropists Laura and John Arnold, the cou­ple con­firmed in a state­ment to The Bal­ti­more Sun.

“We per­son­ally pro­vided fi­nan­cial sup­port for the ae­rial sur­veil­lance tool be­ing pi­loted in Bal­ti­more,” the cou­ple said. “As a so­ci­ety, we should seek to un­der­stand whether these tech­nolo­gies yield sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits, while care­fully weigh­ing any such ben­e­fits against cor­re­spond­ing trade­offs to pri­vacy.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg, the Arnolds told Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems founder Ross McNutt that if he could find a city that would al­low the com­pany to fly for sev­eral months, they would do­nate the money to keep the plane in the air.

Wil­cox said the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion iden­ti­fies causes and pro­jects and makes grants, but also helps man­age do­na­tions on be­half of or­ga­ni­za­tions. He said the foun­da­tion had not is­sued any of its own grants to po­lice-re­lated causes. It has helped the depart­ment with do­na­tions so­licited or re­ceived by po­lice, he said.

“There’s money that peo­ple give to us on a dis­cre­tionary ba­sis to make a dif­fer­ence in Bal­ti­more, and we have not made any grants for any­thing po­lice-re­lated,” he said.

The Arnolds’ per­sonal web­site lists dozens of po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions, char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions and links to gifts by a foun­da­tion they fund. Un­der per­sonal char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, the Arnolds listed a gift of be­tween $100,000 and $499,000 to the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion af­ter Oct. 26, 2015.

The gift for the sur­veil­lance project was made by the Arnolds per­son­ally.

The Laura and John Arnold Foun­da­tion, which has as­sets of $1.2 bil­lion, has six main ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing one fo­cused on crim­i­nal jus­tice. The ini­tia­tive “aims to re­duce crime, in­crease pub­lic safety, and en­sure the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem op­er­ates as fairly and cost-ef­fec­tively as pos­si­ble,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site. “LJAF not only de­vel­ops strate­gies to more ef­fec­tively deal with in­di­vid­u­als once they have en­tered the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, we also work to pre­vent peo­ple from com­mit­ting crimes in the first place.”

They de­scribe their giv­ing phi­los­o­phy as seek­ing “trans­for­ma­tional change.”

Mean­while, records pro­vided by the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion show Bal­ti­more po­lice us­ing do­na­tions to hire con­trac­tors, pur­chase and fund equip­ment, and to pro­vide food for com­mu­nity and train­ing events.

In 2012, a Po­lice Depart­ment fund paid out $565,000, in­clud­ing $130,000 to in­stall wire­less cam­eras in West Bal­ti­more and along Green­mount Av­enue, and $200,000 to buy and pro­vide ser­vice for software that al­lowed of­fi­cers to ac­cess po­lice data­bases over a smartphone.


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