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