Baltimore Police Failed to Tell Public About Air Surveillance

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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. The department did not hold any such meetings, the Baltimore Sun reports. By the time the program was revealed publicly a year later, 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 by the Sun through a public records request.

Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems 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. 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 company president Ross McNutt in a 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.” The company’s airborne technology is capable of recording footage of about 32 square miles of the city at a time. The footage collected 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. The company says the technology is also useful in monitoring large-scale events.

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