Baltimore police declined using aerial surveillance until big donors stepped up, emails show

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The emails, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request, show how an early effort to put the company's surveillance plane in the skys above Baltimore — including for the 2014 'Star Spangled' celebration of the national anthem's bicentennial

When an Ohio company pitched its aerial surveillance technology to the Baltimore Police Department in the summer of 2014, department officials weren't interested, according to internal emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

Persistent Surveillance Systems said it could help police monitor Baltimore's Star-Spangled Spectacular, a celebration of Battle of Baltimore's bicentennial. Department officials said no.

"Unfortunately Baltimore at this time will not be utilizing [wide area surveillance], for the Star Spangled Spectacular or any other event," Lt. Sam Hood, head of the department's CitiWatch program, wrote to Persistent Surveillance president Ross McNutt.

A year later, Houston philanthropists Laura and John Arnold heard about McNutt's technology on the National Public Radio program "Radiolab," according to the emails, and contacted him with an offer to pay for a program testing its application by police in a major American city.

"They are interested in conducting a rigorous evaluation of the impact of PSS on crime, case closure rates, and deterrence in [an] urban environment," McNutt wrote to Hood in a July 15, 2015 email. He asked Hood whether he would be interested in talking to someone at the foundation.

baltimore-police-declined-using-aerial-surveillance-until-big-donors-stepped-up-emails-show photo 1 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.

...

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.

... (Kevin Rector and Justin George)

"It would be my pleasure," Hood wrote in response to McNutt the same day.

Thus began months of emails, phone calls and chats between police, Persistent Surveillance and representatives of the Arnold Foundation.

On Sept. 11, 2015, for example, Karla Sainz, a liaison between the foundation's board and its staff, wrote to McNutt: "The Arnolds would like to move forward with one city at this time. They are open to your suggestion on which one that would be. Please let me know if you have a preference and your reasoning behind it."

McNutt responded 10 minutes later.

baltimore-police-declined-using-aerial-surveillance-until-big-donors-stepped-up-emails-show photo 2 Kevin Rector

As the Baltimore Police Department considers whether to continue using a private aerial surveillance program to fight crime, the man who owns the technology is looking to court other clients in private industry.

Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, said he is considering marketing...

As the Baltimore Police Department considers whether to continue using a private aerial surveillance program to fight crime, the man who owns the technology is looking to court other clients in private industry.

Ross McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, said he is considering marketing...

(Kevin Rector)

"If we had to choose one, we would prefer to start with Baltimore in November," he wrote. "We believe that it provides the best near term opportunity and evaluation location with a very large and acute need and very strong support from the local commanders. Lt. Hood is very excited and with a successful operation will be a very good advocate in the future.

"We believe that this would be a good kick start and allow us to show what we do to a large number of people."

The Arnolds ended up giving $360,000 to fund the program in Baltimore. Since January, Persistent Surveillance has conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance over the city, capturing footage of 32 square miles at a time. The footage can be used to track individuals and vehicles entering and leaving crime scenes, supporters of the program say.

Leila Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Arnold Foundation, confirmed the Arnolds had heard the "Radiolab" program and that John Arnold had reached out to McNutt.

Foundation staff "had some conversations with McNutt and others, but they were early stage and limited," Walsh said. "This was a personal investment by the Arnolds."

McNutt has declined to comment on the emails, referring all questions to Baltimore Police. T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said he did not know whether the department's initial decision not to partner with Persistent Surveillance was based on funding or other factors.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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Article Baltimore police declined using aerial surveillance until big donors stepped up, emails show compiled by Original article here