Firm urged city po­lice to go pub­lic on sur­veil­lance

Com­pany that op­er­ated aerial record­ing pro­gram rec­om­mended hear­ings

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Rec­tor and Justin Ge­orge

Be­fore the first plane left the ground, the com­pany op­er­at­ing an aerial sur­veil­lance pro­gram for the Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment rec­om­mended that the depart­ment con­duct fo­cus groups and other out­reach ef­forts to gauge com­mu­nity ac­cep­tance and con­cerns.

But the depart­ment did not hold any such meet­ings.

By the time the pro­gram was re­vealed pub­licly a year later, in Au­gust, it had col­lected more than 300 hours of sur­veil­lance footage se­cretly over eight months and po­lice still were try­ing to fig­ure out how to in­form the com­mu­nity, ac­cord­ing to emails ob­tained Thurs­day by The Bal­ti­more Sun through a pub­lic records re­quest.

The Ohio-based com­pany, Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance Sys­tems, had in­cluded con­cerns about pub­lic ac­cep­tance of the pro­gram and the need to brief res­i­dents on its ca­pa­bil­i­ties from the start of its com­mu­ni­ca­tions with po­lice, ac­cord­ing to the records. The com­pany was ea­ger to be­gin, but was up­front about po­ten­tial prob­lems.

“There are many areas to con­sider in­clud­ing the abil­ity to ob­tain ap­proval from po­lice and city lead­er­ship and the likely com­mu­nity re­ac­tion,” wrote Ross McNutt, the com­pany’s pres­i­dent, in an Aug. 4, 2015, email to Lt. Sam Hood, head of the Po­lice Depart­ment’s Ci­tiWatch pro­gram. “We have had trou­ble get­ting lead­er­ship de­ci­sions be­cause of the po­ten­tial con­tro­versy. The com­mu­nity ac­cep­tance would be a sig­nif­i­cant part of the eval­u­a­tion.”

McNutt con­tin­ued: “As part of this ef­fort

we would fully sup­port com­mu­nity out­reach and brief­ings and fully ex­plain the sys­tem and what it does and the pri­vacy poli­cies we will be op­er­at­ing un­der.”

Around the same time, McNutt sent Hood a draft pro­posal out­lin­ing how the pro­gram could work, which in­cluded a sec­tion ti­tled “Com­mu­nity and Le­gal Com­mu­nity Ac­cep­tance Eval­u­a­tion.”

“We plan to con­duct a se­ries of fo­cus groups to eval­u­ate the po­ten­tial ac­cep­tance of the wide area air­borne sur­veil­lance sys­tem through real world re­sults dur­ing oper­a­tions,” the out­line reads.

But McNutt also knew that the pri­vately funded pro­gram was mov­ing ahead out of pub­lic view. In an email to Hood on Sept. 11, 2015, McNutt in­cluded an as­sess­ment of Bal­ti­more as a vi­able host of the tech­nol­ogy, writ­ing that “Bal­ti­more would like to con­duct the test quickly and qui­etly” in the com­ing months, in­clud­ing as the tri­als of sev­eral of­fi­cers charged in the ar­rest and death of Fred­die Gray were play­ing out in the city.

The com­pany’s air­borne tech­nol­ogy is ca­pa­ble of record­ing footage of about 32 square miles of the city at a time. The footage col­lected then can be re­viewed by an­a­lysts, who can move back and forth through time to try to track in­di­vid­u­als or ve­hi­cles ar­riv­ing at or leav­ing crime scenes.

Po­lice have praised the pro­gram as ef­fec­tive in pro­duc­ing leads in se­ri­ous crimes such as shoot­ings and homi­cides. But civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates have ques­tioned its con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity.

As donors were lined up and the pro­gram gained trac­tion, Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Kevin Davis was asked to ap­prove it. On Oct. 16, 2015, Hood sent McNutt an­other email that started, “Good News,” ex­plain­ing that Davis had given the pro­gram the green light.

When it was fi­nally re­vealed in Au­gust, the pub­lic — and many oth­ers — were caught off guard, in­clud­ing Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, the City Coun­cil, pros­e­cu­tors and pub­lic de­fend­ers, and other elected of­fi­cials.

Many of­fi­cials crit­i­cized the Po­lice Depart­ment for its lack of trans­parency around the pro­gram.

Asked Thurs­day about the early re­com- men­da­tions from Per­sis­tent Sur­veil­lance for pub­lic in­put, T.J. Smith, a po­lice spokesman, said po­lice were plan­ning on pub­licly dis­cussing the pro­gram — which is still in a pi­lot phase — be­fore it was re­vealed but never got the chance.

Davis has “dis­cussed the need to test and then speak about it,” Smith said. “We’ve said, and will say again, if we had it to do over again, we would do some things dif­fer­ently.”

Reached late Tues­day night, McNutt had no com­ment and for­warded all ques­tions to Bal­ti­more po­lice.

More re­cent emails show that po­lice were plan­ning to dis­cuss the pro­gram with the pub­lic but hadn’t got­ten around to it.

In a slide pre­sen­ta­tion dated Aug. 12, Hood wrote that the pro­gram’s goals were to “solve typ­i­cally un­solv­able crimes” and pro­vide “in­creased de­ter­rence through pub­lic aware­ness of pro­gram at the right time.”

The slides showed the pro­gram had three phases: a tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion be­tween Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary that found that the sys­tem “worked well”; an op­er­a­tional phase be­tween June and Au­gust where po­lice re­viewed 102 in­ves­tiga­tive cases in which the sur­veil­lance pro­gram was used and found it “showed value”; and an “op­er­a­tional em­ploy­ment” phase, where it would start be­ing used.

As part of the third phase, po­lice would give brief­ings on the pro­gram to de­tec­tives, pros­e­cu­tors and other part­ner agen­cies. They would make a pub­lic an­nounce­ment and in­volve the com­mu­nity, the slides showed. Fi­nally, data ac­quired in the pro­gram would be used of­fi­cially in crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

By mid-Au­gust, po­lice had about 310 recorded hours from about 420 flight hours and 102 com­pleted in­ves­tiga­tive briefs based on data ob­tained from the sur­veil­lance pro­gram.

Mul­ti­ple city lawyers had re­viewed the pro­gram. Po­lice saw it as no dif­fer­ent from other aerial sur­veil­lance like the depart­ment’s Fox­trot he­li­copter pro­gram.

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