Baltimore Approves Surveillance Plane System in Divided Vote

The surveillance plane system, which will deploy several aircrafts over Baltimore, was approved today in a 3 to 2 vote by the city’s Board of Estimates.

After hearing protests from attorneys of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Board Chair and City Council President Brandon Scott attempted to defer action on the Aerial Investigative Research (AIR) pilot program until after the governor’s directive to stay-at-home due to the coronavirus lifts. Scott said he wanted to allow for more public input on the program.

Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young and the two members of the Board appointed by the mayor voted down Scott’s motion before voting to approve the memorandum of understanding between the Police Department and Persistent Surveillance Systems, the surveillance plane system’s operator. Voting to approve the program were Young, Acting City Solicitor Dana Moore, and Acting Director of Public Works Matthew Garbark.

“No councilmember other than me has input into this program,” Scott said during the meeting. Action on the item was deferred a week ago to allow for the council members and the comptroller to be briefed on the program. Voting against the program were Scott and the City Comptroller Joan Pratt.

“Overall the third-party evaluation provisions raise too many unresolved questions,” said Pratt, noting that an auditor for the program is not identified in the document.

According to the memorandum of understanding released publicly by Scott on Tuesday, the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation “intends to pay the fees of the Independent Validators for its activities in respect to the Pilot Project.” The President of the Abell Foundation Robert Embry Jr. confirmed in an email to MeriTalk that an agreement between the foundation and an independent validator has been reached, but has not yet been signed.

Pratt expressed concerns about the security and ownership of the program’s data and asked of the Texas-based funding source, “Why is a private party, Arnold Ventures, paying Persistent Surveillance Systems to operate this program for $3.7 million?”

Scott said the money could be better spent updating the city’s closed caption television (CCTV) and license plate reader systems, which are in need of repair. The aerial footage relies on the other systems to identify individuals. For the amount of money being spent by the foundation, Scott said 30 CCTV cameras and 40 license plate readers could be purchased for the city.

“It’s a lot like buying a car with rims and the engine being faulty,” Scott said. Both Scott and Young are candidates in the city’s upcoming mayoral election scheduled for June 2.

Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said repeatedly, in public forums and during Wednesday’s meeting, that he is unsure if the AIR pilot program will work.

“I’m open to trying to something that has never been tried because we built in precautions and safety measures,” said Harrison during a March 30 online community forum.  The four-to-six month pilot program is scheduled to begin this month, according to the Police Department’s website.

Dwight Weingarten
About Dwight Weingarten
Dwight Weingarten is MeriTalk SLG's Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.