Community Surveillance Systems Funded by Philanthropy: Why Not to Worry

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August 30, 2016; Baltimore Sun

Last week, the NPQ nonprofit newswire covered the story of the private funding of a surveillance system that would have monitored the streets of Baltimore secretly from the sky. The secrecy began with the funding mechanism, which bypassed the public scrutiny that the usual budgetary processes would have necessitated. The grant was made anonymously by Laura and John Arnold and run through a donor-advised fund at the Baltimore Community Foundation, whose president claims he knew nothing about it.

Anyway, now the Arnolds would like to claim that the outrage caused by the way the project was planned and funded entirely without public input is all part of a healthy process of public dialogue:

“We haven’t created a position as to whether or not Baltimore should use it. This is the first of many steps to evaluate whether the technology should be used,” said Laura Arnold, a Houston-based philanthropist who is paying for the surveillance with her billionaire husband, John. “No program would be successful unless they address these issues [of privacy]. They’re never going to reduce crime in Baltimore or any city unless the community is part of the solution. This is all very healthy.”

Laura Arnold is a lawyer, which you may be able to detect in the following statement:

As supporters of the ACLU, we deeply recognize the concerns and the tradeoffs that need to be made on privacy. Not only do we fully respect and support that process; for us, we don’t see it as a contradictory thing. We should have this conversation.

Although police department officials have denied that the program was secret, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city council members said they, at least, were entirely in the dark until the publishing of an expose in Bloomberg Businessweek. No wonder they did not want to share! Now, a public hearing on the program is being scheduled by the city council. Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe says the program should be halted immediately.

Laura Arnold would never, she said, “presume to tell you what’s best for your neighborhood.” I think the neighborhood might see that differently. Philanthropic money in public systems is enough of a complication and an end-run around democracy. Secret philanthropic money in public systems—especially in systems of policing—is an affront to taxpayers.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Aaron Dorfman

    Right on point, Ruth. Well said!

  • David Callahan, IP Editor

    I totally agree about the complications of private money in public systems. However, for context, it’s worth mentioning that several foundations are working on a pretty large scale with public criminal justice systems at a local level to experiment with new ideas. MacArthur is one of them, with its big new initiative in this area that’s channeling grants to 20 jurisdictions. Annie E. Casey is another that’s long worked with local authorities on juvenile justice. As for the Arnold Foundation, it’s working with at least 30 jurisdictions to pilot its pre-trial assessment tool. Private funders have also paid to pilot body cameras. I doubt the public knows much about any of these public-private partnerships, which is definitely a problem. But I’m not sure the Baltimore surveillance program is somehow uniquely bad. After all, Baltimore already has over 700 street level police cameras.