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Baltimore Police Are Secretly Spying on Residents from the Air: Bloomberg

The BPD has been using aerial surveillance to investigate 'all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings,' without telling public

Protesters face armed police during a march for Freddie Gray in Baltimore. (Photo: Arash Azizzada/flickr/cc)

The Cessna used for the surveillance project circled overhead crowds of protesters chanting for justice after the death of 25-year-old black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. (Photo: Arash Azizzada/flickr/cc)

Since January, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has been using small aircrafts to spy on residents for as much as 10 hours a day, without informing the public, in a project financed by a private donor and facilitated by a private company, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

The BPD, Bloomberg's Monte Reel wrote, has been using aerial surveillance to investigate "all sorts of crimes, from property thefts to shootings." The cameras capture an area of roughly 30 square miles and transmit images to analysts on the ground, while footage gets automatically saved to hard drives for later review.

The technology comes from a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems. Its president, Ross McNutt, developed a similar tool for the Pentagon while working for the U.S. Air Force in 2006. Over time, he modified the technology for commercial use. McNutt eventually pitched the service to the BPD after his company had faltered in finding a department for a long-term contract. He opened his office in Baltimore in January, above a parking garage, denoted only by a piece of paper taped to his door that reads, "Community Support Program."

The Cessna used for the surveillance project circled overhead crowds of protesters chanting for justice after the death of 25-year-old black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, whose spine was severed in police custody, on the day the verdict came in not guilty for Caesar Goodson—the only officer involved in Gray's death facing a murder charge.

Reel described the day of June 23, when it became clear that a protest over Goodson's verdict would not break out: McNutt became "frustrated," Reel wrote. "He wanted to please the cops."

Against the odds

The BPD became the first police department to contract with McNutt, but it was not the first to test drive the technology. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's office approved a nine-day trial run in 2012 in Compton, California, a majority-black city near Los Angeles, but would not sign a contract over concerns about image quality. The secret program led to outcry from residents, as well as the mayor, when they finally found out about their constant surveillance—a year later.

"There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily," Compton Mayor Aja Brown told the Los Angeles Times in 2014.

After Compton came Dayton, Ohio, as McNutt improved the technology. Finally, Bloomberg reports, there was Baltimore:

[In 2015] McNutt got an e-mail on behalf of Texas-based philanthropists Laura and John Arnold. John is a former Enron trader whose hedge fund, Centaurus Advisors, made billions before he retired in 2012. Since then, the Arnolds have funded a variety of hot-button causes, including advocating for public pension rollbacks and charter schools. The Arnolds told 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. McNutt had met the lieutenant in charge of Baltimore’s ground-based camera system on the trade-show circuit, and they’d become friendly. "We settled in on Baltimore because it was ready, it was willing, and it was just post-Freddie Gray," McNutt says. The Arnolds donated the money to the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit that administers donations to a wide range of local civic causes.

Reel's revelations come as the city is already grappling with a damning report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which found "systemic deficiencies" at the BPD that included explicitly discriminatory directives, such as orders to "arrest all the black hoodies" in a certain neighborhood, and a pattern of targeting black and minority residents for unwarranted stops and searches.

And just a week ago, a coalition of civil rights groups filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that said the BPD's unlicensed use of a different surveillance technology known as the Stingray, which tricks mobile devices into connecting with it by mimicking a cell phone tower, is racially discriminatory and willfully impedes emergency calls.

Despite all this, according to Reel, the rest of the city, from officials to residents, was not even aware that they were being spied on from the air.

Reel concludes: "McNutt says he's sure his system can withstand a public unveiling and that the more people know about what his cameras can—and can't—do, the fewer worries they'll have. But the police ultimately decide who and what should be tracked. In a city that's struggled to convince residents that its police can be trusted, the arguments are now Baltimore's to make."

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