Coun­cil plans hear­ing on po­lice sur­veil­lance

Pro­gram goes well beyond Ci­tiWatch, ex­perts say Mayor and gov­er­nor also un­aware of aerial video

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

Con­fronted with ques­tions about a se­cret aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram used to record footage of broad swaths of the city, the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment tried to al­lay con­cerns by char­ac­ter­iz­ing it as a sim­ple ex­pan­sion of the ex­ist­ing net­work of street-level Ci­tiWatch cam­eras.

“This, ef­fec­tively, is a mo­bile Ci­tiWatch cam­era,” said po­lice spokesman T.J. Smith.

Ex­perts in pri­vacy law and in the use of aerial sur­veil­lance by law en­force­ment say that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion is way off base.

“They’re try­ing to make peo­ple calm by say­ing, ‘Don’t worry, this is just an ex­pan­sion of our CCTV pro­gram.’ It’s not,” said Anne McKenna, a vis­it­ing as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of law at Penn State Univer­sity and a le­gal con­sul­tant to the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice on aerial sur­veil­lance is­sues. “This is not a cam­era pole that sits in one lo­ca­tion and films peo­ple walk­ing back and forth.”

The new pro­gram in­volves a pri­vately owned com­pany strap­ping a bank of cam­eras into a small Cessna air­plane and cap­tur­ing hun­dreds of hours of footage — more than 32 square miles at a time — from about 8,000 feet above Bal­ti­more. That footage is fed to an­a­lysts on the ground who can go back in time to track T.J. Smith

The City Coun­cil plans to sum­mon Bal­ti­more po­lice to ex­plain why the depart­ment did not dis­close that it was us­ing a pri­vate com­pany to fly sur­veil­lance mis­sions and to col­lect and store footage of wide sec­tions of the city.

De­mands for a hear­ing come as the bil­lion­aire Texas phi­lan­thropists bankrolling the sur­veil­lance pro­gram re­vealed that they have given the ini­tia­tive $360,000 through two char­i­ties — three times more than pre­vi­ously dis­closed by the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion, which passed through the ini­tial Novem­ber gift of $120,000 from Laura and John Arnold.

A sep­a­rate char­ity, the Po­lice Foun­da­tion in Wash­ing­ton, han­dled an ad­di­tional $240,000 gift from the Hous­ton cou­ple in April. The group said it will pro­duce an eval­u­a­tion of the pro­gram by the end of next month.

Also on Thurs­day, the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion said it will im­prove its scru­tiny of do­na­tions to two Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment funds main­tained by the foun­da­tion.

The Arnolds’ ini­tial gift was ear­marked for Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, the com­pany con­duct­ing the flights, but top

of­fi­cials at the Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion said they did not re­al­ize the money would be used for a se­cret pro­gram. The money came with a no­ta­tion that it was for the Po­lice Depart­ment “to pur­chase com­mu­nity sup­port pro­gram wide area im­agery sys­tem sur­veil­lance for city of Bal­ti­more for Jan. 2016.”

“We need to en­gage in fur­ther scru­tiny,” said Thomas E. Wil­cox, pres­i­dent of the Bal­ti­more Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion, who said of­fi­cials did not see “any red flags.”

“The sur­prise we all had about what turned out to be a se­cret sur­veil­lance — it came as a sur­prise to us, and we’re sorry about that,” Wil­cox said.

The ob­scu­rity of the ef­fort has ran­kled elected of­fi­cials.

City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee Chair­man War­ren Branch and Vice Chair­man Bran­don M. Scott will hold a hear­ing on the mat­ter “as soon as pos­si­ble,” said Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young.

The coun­cil mem­bers say they are not nec­es­sar­ily op­posed to the sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion, which has the po­ten­tial to help doc­u­ment wrong­do­ing from gun crimes to po­lice mis­con­duct. But they say such mon­i­tor­ing of the pub­lic’s move­ments should be dis­cussed by cit­i­zens first.

“When you’re deal­ing with the pub­lic’s trust, you have to have trans­parency,” Davis said Thurs­day, ad­ding that po­lice of­fi­cials now un­der­stand the need to make the pro­gram pub­lic. “Ob­vi­ously, a mis­take was made, and I think they ac­knowl­edge that.”

Mean­while, Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings said he was meet­ing with Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis about the sur­veil­lance.

“He will be pro­vid­ing me with a thor­ough re­view of the pro­gram,” the Bal­ti­more Demo­crat said. “That this pro­gram has been op­er­at­ing for months in se­cret is con­cern­ing. ... We must vet this pro­gram with the help of or­ga­ni­za­tions like the ACLU and NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund to de­ter­mine if there is a vi­o­la­tion of peo­ple’s con­sti­tu­tional rights.”

Ohio-based Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems has for months been test­ing so­phis­ti­cated sur­veil­lance cam­eras aboard a small Cessna air­plane fly­ing high above Bal­ti­more, the Po­lice Depart­ment ac­knowl­edged this week. The ar­range­ment was kept se­cret in part be­cause it never ap­peared be­fore the city’s spend­ing board and was paid for through pri­vate do­na­tions.

Un­like high-pro­file sur­veil­lance tac­tics — such as body cam­eras worn by po­lice and pole cam­eras on street cor­ners — the depart­ment’s use of the sur­veil­lance plane was not dis­closed pub­licly. The po­lice did not brief Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, her of­fice said.

“She was not briefed on the pro­gram at its in­cep­tion,” said An­thony McCarthy, a spokesman for Rawl­ings-Blake. He said the mayor learned of the plane’s ex­is­tence only re­cently, but would not be more spe­cific. Bloomberg Busi­ness­week was given ac­cess to the Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems op­er­a­tion and pub­lished an ar­ti­cle about it Tues­day. McCarthy de­clined to say whether Rawl­ings-Blake learned about the sur­veil­lance pro­gram from the ar­ti­cle.

The of­fice of Bal­ti­more State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn J. Mosby is­sued a state­ment Thurs­day say­ing a mem­ber of her staff was briefed on the pro­gram Aug. 12.

“As of to­day, the Bal­ti­more City Po­lice Depart­ment fur­ther dis­closed to us that there are five open and pend­ing cases where this sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy was used,” the state­ment said. “While this tech­nol­ogy may be a use­ful in­ves­tiga­tive Bal­ti­more po­lice spokesman T.J. Smith, cen­ter, an­swers ques­tions Thurs­day on the depart­ment’s use of pri­vate fund­ing to work with a pri­vate com­pany to pro­vide undis­closed aerial sur­veil­lance in Bal­ti­more. He com­pared the pro­gram to an ex­pan­sion of the Ci­tiWatch cam­era sys­tem. tool and we look for­ward to learn­ing more about it, we are cur­rently work­ing with the Po­lice Depart­ment to de­ter­mine what in­for­ma­tion can be uti­lized at trial.”

A spokesman for Gov. Larry Ho­gan said the gov­er­nor was un­aware of the pro­gram.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion was not in­formed,” Dou­glass Mayer said.

By con­trast, the Po­lice Depart­ment’s body cam­era pro­gram was the sub­ject of news con­fer­ences, leg­is­la­tion, a task force, a se­ries of pub­lic meet­ings and pub­lic pro­cure­ment process.

Davis, the coun­cil pres­i­dent’s spokesman, said Young was sur­prised to learn of the sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions.

“He wants to hear about the pro­gram,” Davis said. The po­lice will be called to pro­vide a “full ac­count­ing of the pro­gram, what it’s done, and what’s go­ing on with it.”

“We haven’t had a pub­lic ac­count­ing of the pro­gram,” Davis said. “The chair and the vice chair of the Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee will be work­ing to make that hap­pen as soon as pos­si­ble.”

Branch said he was sched­ul­ing an over­sight meet­ing af­ter con­fer­ring with Scott.

“The com­mis­sioner keeps talk­ing about trans­parency, but every time we turn around, there’s some­thing else where we’re left on the out­side,” Branch said. “It’s the way this ad­min­is­tra­tion has al­ways han­dled things. They never reach out. You have to pull in­for­ma­tion out of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Scott said the over­sight hear­ing would fo­cus on the sur­veil­lance plane, but also the re­cent U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment re­port that found dis­crim­i­na­tory polic­ing in Bal­ti­more. He said the hear­ing would be in Septem­ber.

Jus­tice Depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives made no men­tion of the sur­veil­lance plane, and fed­eral of­fi­cials de­clined to say Thurs­day whether they knew of the mon­i­tor­ing.

In the Jus­tice re­port, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said po­lice prac­tices in Bal­ti­more fo­cus “law en­force­ment ac­tions on low-in­come, mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties” and en­cour­age of­fi­cers to have “un­nec­es­sary, ad­ver­sar­ial in­ter­ac­tions with com­mu­nity mem­bers.”

Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems’ flights come on the heels of rev­e­la­tions that the FBI pro­vided air­craft for sur­veil­lance flights over Bal­ti­more in the weeks af­ter the ri­ot­ing of 2015. FBI air­craft made 10 flights and logged more than 36 hours, mostly at night. But the pri­vate com­pany’s fights over the city have far sur­passed the FBI’s lim­ited use of aerial sur­veil­lance in Bal­ti­more.

The com­pany con­ducted 100 hours of sur­veil­lance in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary and 200 hours of sur­veil­lance be­tween June and this month, po­lice said Wed­nes­day. It will con­tinue con­duct­ing sur­veil­lance for sev­eral weeks be­fore the Po­lice Depart­ment eval­u­ates its ef­fec­tive­ness and de­cides whether to con­tinue the pro­gram.

Jim Bueer­mann, pres­i­dent of the Po­lice Foun­da­tion in Wash­ing­ton, said his non­profit agreed to fa­cil­i­tate the $240,000 por­tion of the grant on the con­di­tion that it be al­lowed to eval­u­ate the pro­gram.

That re­view, which he said could be com­pleted in as lit­tle as a month, will not be a rig­or­ous, sci­en­tific study but a “pol­icy anal­y­sis” look­ing at the pro­gram’s ef­fec­tive­ness for polic­ing and the con­cerns it raises, in­clud­ing pri­vacy, Bueer­mann said. It will also in­clude a set of rec­om­men­da­tions for other agen­cies in the coun­try that might be con­sid­er­ing such pro­grams, he said.

“And I have to be­lieve that one of those rec­om­men­da­tions is go­ing to be, ‘Be­fore you do this, make sure the pub­lic knows about it and hold some pub­lic meet­ings,’ ” Bueer­mann said.

Po­lice spokesman T.J. Smith said the plane’s cam­eras can record footage of 32 square miles. He com­pared the pro­gram to an ex­pan­sion of the city’s Ci­tiWatch sys­tem of street-level cam­eras.

When crime cam­eras were first in­stalled

“We must vet this pro­gram with the help of or­ga­ni­za­tions like the ACLU and NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund to de­ter­mine if there is a vi­o­la­tion of peo­ple’s con­sti­tu­tional rights.” Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings

in Bal­ti­more in 2005 un­der then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, they num­bered fewer than 200 and were largely con­fined to high-crime ar­eas. The city’s net­work has grown to 696, in­clud­ing cam­eras at the East Bal­ti­more De­vel­op­ment Inc. project and sur­round­ing the Horse­shoe Casino.

Two years ago, city of­fi­cials an­nounced that they were ex­pand­ing their pub­lic sur­veil­lance net­work to in­clude pri­vate se­cu­rity cam­eras that could quadru­ple the num­ber of dig­i­tal eyes on neigh­bor­hoods.

Ex­pan­sions of the Ci­tiWatch sys­tem — even those funded through grants and do­na­tions — are typ­i­cally ap­proved in pub­lic at the city’s Board of Es­ti­mates meet­ings. For in­stance, in July, when the owner of Alameda Mar­ket­place Shop­ping Cen­ter pur­chased five cam­eras for the Ci­tiWatch sys­tem and agreed to pay the city $26,250 to add them to the net­work, it was voted on at a pub­lic meet­ing.

The po­lice com­mis­sioner said in a state­ment that Ci­tiWatch cam­eras have re­sulted in an av­er­age de­cline in crime of 33 per­cent in the small ar­eas near each cam­era. He said an ex­pan­sion of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance is needed in a city where there were nearly 1,000 shoot­ings and a record high in homi­cides last year.

“At a time when 84 per­cent of our homi­cides oc­cur in out­door pub­lic spa­ces, it seems log­i­cal to ex­plore op­por­tu­ni­ties to cap­ture the brazen killers who don’t think twice about gun­ning down their vic­tims on our streets,” Davis said. “In­deed, 43 per­cent of this year’s killing have oc­curred in ‘broad day­light’ hours, an ap­par­ent ges­ture of im­punity by trig­ger pullers who ex­pect not to be re­vealed.”

The sur­veil­lance plane pro­gram re­mains in a test­ing phase, Davis said.

“We do not know yet if our ex­am­i­na­tion of this tech­nol­ogy will re­sult in a rec­om­men­da­tion to per­ma­nently pur­sue it, but prom­ise a ro­bust and in­clu­sive com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tion,” Davis said.

Po­lice said Thurs­day that they do not have an es­ti­mate for when they will make a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the pro­gram.


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