Philanthropists Back Out of Controversial Police Surveillance Program

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Illustration courtesy Persistent Surveillance Systems

In a statement released on Tuesday, Arnold Ventures, a Texas-based philanthropic organization pursuing sustainable change in criminal justice, education, health, and public finance, has decided to cease any further investment with Persistent Surveillance Systems, a private company that develops wide area surveillance systems and is part of the Baltimore Police Department’s fledgling Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) program.

The decision was taken after an 11-month evaluation of its effectiveness in tackling violent crimes around the city, Arnold said.

The program, which included three planes, their pilots, as well as researchers to study its impact on violent crime, encountered push back from members of the ACLU and local activists who sought to block the controversial surveillance program, considering its use to be inherently invasive and unconstitutional, reports Wired.

The program initially came under fire in 2016 when a Bloomberg report revealed that it was operating in secret and had collected over 300 hours of undisclosed footage for review by the city’s police department.  It was later grounded amid the backlash.

However, soon after, the program was relaunched, and in November of 2020 a divided federal court ruled that AIR was, in fact, constitutional, calling it a tool to help police combat rampant crime without invading the rights and privacy of city residents, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The panel pointed to the city’s homicide count — topping 300 each of the past five years — and the police department’s inability to solve cases as a reason to search for alternatives. In a 2-1 ruling, the judges found that police have taken steps to protect the rights of residents and that the plane is constitutional because it is less invasive than street surveillance cameras and that the “built-in limitations of the AIR program mean that it only enables the short-term tracking of public movements.”

But the decision made by Arnold Ventures to pull out of the program after months of research and evaluation to gauge its merits and feasibility could point to the validity of the concerns voiced by the ACLU and activists.

The use of aerial surveillance by policing organizations came  under fire in 2020 when it was discovered that a predator drone operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection flew over protests in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The use of drones like the one in Minneapolis, as well as others reported over Detroit and San Antonio, was seen as a threat to constitutional rights and was the subject of a letter from three dozen House members calling for a halt to surveillance of peaceful protests and citing additional reports of surveillance flights by other agencies using conventional aircraft over Washington, D.C.

Facing increased scrutiny of policing practices in the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd, city governments around the country are restricting police technology.  Officials in San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston have approved restrictions on police use of facial recognition as major vendors like Amazon and Microsoft placed temporary moratoriums on sales of the tech to police. California has also passed two privacy laws in the past two years, while Michigan voters endorsed new rules around police access to suspect data.

For now, Arnold Ventures, which has also decided not to fund a similar aerial investigative effort proposed for St. Louis after stressing the need for public support, seems to be following suit.

See also: “Baltimore Aerial Surveillance Linked to Small Improvements in Solving Crimes,” Rand Study Finds.

Editor’s Note: Arnold Ventures is a supporter of The Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report.

Isidoro Rodriguez is editor of TCR’s Justice Digest.

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