Surveillan­ce back­ers boost may­oral hope­ful

Vig­nara­jah nets thou­sands from Tex­ans’ fundraiser

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Talia Rich­man

Bal­ti­more may­oral can­di­date Thiru Vig­nara­jah said Tues­day he raised roughly $20,000 at a re­cent fundraiser hosted by a pair of Texas donors who have backed ef­forts to fly surveillan­ce planes over the city.

Texas phi­lan­thropists Laura and John Arnold hosted a fundraiser for Vig­nara­jah in Hous­ton, part of a se­ries of events in Bal­ti­more and across the coun­try aimed at boost­ing sup­port for his cam­paign. John Arnold did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The con­tro­ver­sial aerial surveillan­ce pro­gram — which sup­port­ers say could be an im­por­tant tool in the fight against Bal­ti­more’s un­re­lent­ing vi­o­lent crime — took off in 2016 without pub­lic dis­clo­sure. The pi­lot pro­gram was halted amid crit­i­cism of its se­crecy and con­dem­nat i ons f rom civil l i ber­ties ad­vo­cates, who called the “spy plane” a vi­o­la­tion of peo­ple’s rights.

Re­cently, the head of the com­pany be­hind the aerial surveillan­ce oper­a­tion pitched Bal­ti­more of­fi­cials on re­vamp­ing it — this time with three cam­er­aladen planes fly­ing above the city si­mul­ta­ne­ously, cov­er­ing the ar­eas that see the vast ma­jor­ity of shoot­ings.

The Arnolds, who also funded the 2016 pi­lot pro­gram, have stepped for­ward to help fund the pro­gram should it be ap­proved by city lead­ers. Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Michael Har­ri­son has not yet taken a stance on whether to re­vive it.

But Vig­nara­jah is clear: If elected mayor, he plans to get the aerial surveillan­ce pro­gram off the ground — al­beit this time, he says, cou­pled with pub­lic hear­ings and in­put. It’s one of the top items listed on his cam­paign’s re­cently re­leased crime plan.

Vig­nara­jah, a former city and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor, is run­ning in a crowded Demo­cratic pri­mary that in­cludes Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bran­don Scott, State Sen.

Mary Washington, former Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment spokesman T.J. Smith and busi­ness­man Rikki Vaughn.

Vig­nara­jah said the Arnolds’ show of sup­port has noth­ing to do with his po­si­tion on aerial surveillan­ce.

“Peo­ple sup­port our cam­paign be­cause of the po­si­tions we take,” he said in an in­ter­view. “We don’t take po­si­tions be­cause of the sup­port we get.”

Vig­nara­jah wrote in a Bal­ti­more Sun op-ed in Oc­to­ber 2018 that the de­bate over aerial surveillan­ce presents “a false choice be­tween pri­vacy and pub­lic safety.” He said he would work with the city to es­tab­lish strict rules for when surveillan­ce footage could be used and re­quire po­lice ob­tain a war­rant if they want to see the tapes.

“Our city can­not af­ford to dis­card po­ten­tially good ideas just be­cause they were badly pre­sented,” he wrote. “Aerial surveillan­ce could be a po­tent tool to solve vi­o­lent crimes.”

Cam­paign fi­nance re­ports will be pub­lished in Jan­uary.

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Jes­sica Meyler of El­li­cott City dances in the rain with other Ravens fans at the BMORE Around Town tail­gate party. Rain is ex­pected to con­tinue today and could turn into snow show­ers in late af­ter­noon or evening.

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Texas phi­lan­thropists Laura and John Arnold hosted a fundraiser that brought in $20,000 for the may­oral cam­paign of Thiru Vig­nara­jah. The Arnolds have of­fered to help pay for a con­tro­ver­sial surveillan­ce plane pro­gram to mon­i­tor Bal­ti­more crime.

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