Flight path over Baltimore.” Screen capture from Flightradar24.com by Pete Cimbolic. Image from ACLU.

April 16, 2020; CBS Baltimore

Longtime NPQ readers may remember the 2016 story about a massive aerial surveillance plan cooked up by the Baltimore Police Department and funded by the Texas-based philanthropy of billionaire couple Laura and John Arnold. This philanthropy used to be housed in the Laura and John Arnold Foundation but is now deployed from an LLC called Arnold Ventures.

At the time, the support was being run through a fund controlled by the police at the Baltimore Community Foundation. The Arnold Foundation’s contribution to the scheme was made anonymously. The structure of the fund rendered it fairly invisible to the public, and even to the foundation’s own president, who claimed to know nothing about it at the time. The program bypassed the normal budget venues where the community would have had to approve it.

We had hoped the community’s negative response to the plan would stop it in its tracks, but that was evidently not the case. The police department was in court on Wednesday to defend itself against a civil lawsuit filed by local activists and a grassroots nonprofit called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

In the plaintiff’s complaint, the Maryland chapter of the ACLU asserts:

Unlike lawful forms of aerial surveillance, the warrantless AIR program subjects Plaintiffs and virtually all of Baltimore’s 600,000 residents to long-term, wide-area, and indiscriminate surveillance that will capture the whole of an individual’s movements and thereby reveal their privacies of life. This surveillance is inescapable, and revelation of private information to the AIR program is involuntary: short of never leaving home when the planes are in the air, there is no way to avoid Defendants’ surveillance system.

The plan for the new and improved pilot program involves the use of three planes that will record what is happening at ground level. The program will be operated by a private company, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, and it will be paid for by Laura and John Arnold. According to the suit, the aircraft will fly for at least 40 hours a week. The technology is capable of capturing 32 square miles (83 square kilometers) of the city per image per second.

In their article, the AFRO takes behind the political scenes to reveal what led to this relatively sudden adoption of the strategy, which is now scheduled to run 180 days at a price of $3.7 million. Apparently, the mayor and another mayoral candidate both sit on Baltimore’s board of estimates, where the decision was made to pilot the program. The vote was 3–2, with the mayor holding the majority with two other members who had been appointed by him.

Council president and mayoral hopeful Brandon M. Scott’s comments made it clear he felt that the vote was a kind of a setup under cover of COVID. The vote, he said, was originally scheduled for May 1st, but was instead held at the beginning of April, when there was no opportunity for full public meetings.

Why would the Arnold Foundation place itself in a position where there was even the question of a bypassing of the democratic process? We recall its protestations that all of the upset in 2016 was a part of a healthy community 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.”

At the time, we wrote, “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