Emails show BPD was encouraged to disclose aerial surveillance program

Posted at 9:05 AM, Oct 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-21 19:27:20-04

New emails released Thursday reveal the Baltimore Police Department was encouraged to be upfront with the public about its controversial aerial surveillance program, but chose instead to keep the program secret.

Nearly 500 email conversations between the police department and the Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems date back to June 2014.

Ross McNutt, the founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems, wrote an email to Lt. Samuel Hood, head of the Police Department's CitiWatch program, on Aug. 4, 2015 about starting an aerial surveillance program in Baltimore with community outreach in mind.

"There are many areas to consider including the ability to obtain approval from the police and city leadership and the likely community reaction," he said. "We have had trouble getting leadership decisions because of the potential controversy.

"The community acceptance would be a significant part of the evaluation. As part of this effort we would fully support community outreach and briefings and fully explain the system and what it does and the privacy policies we will be operating under."

The pair also discussed funding for the program and the potential start date of November or December 2015.

Focus groups to evaluate public acceptance were mentioned in a draft proposal by McKnutt titled "Community and Legal Community Acceptance Evaluation."

RELATEDSurveillance plan was not a secret, Baltimore police say

A month later, an email from a donor foundation advised Persistent that Baltimore Police wanted to conduct test flights quickly and quietly in time for the Freddie Gray officer trials that began in January 2016.

It was later revealed that those meetings never happened. The surveillance aircraft had collected more than 300 hours of secret surveillance footage over an eight month period before the program became public.

The plane's technology can record around 32 square miles of the city at a time.

RELATEDBaltimore Police defend aerial surveillance program

BPD said it’s still testing the new technology and hasn’t made a final decision on whether it will become a permanent part of investigations here in Baltimore.

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