Group to no longer fund aerial surveillance over cities

BALTIMORE (AP) — A Texas philanthropy says it will no longer fund the technology that helped launch a surveillance plane that monitored Baltimore in an attempt to help lower violent crime.

Arnold Ventures, backed by billionaires Laura and John Arnold, said it would not be funding a proposed aerial surveillance program in St. Louis, The Baltimore Sun reported. The surveillance program, which is close to a final vote by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, would be conducted by Persistent Surveillance Systems, the same company that flew planes over Baltimore.

“After 11 months of implementation, evaluation and preliminary research, we have decided against further investments in the program at this time. Therefore, Arnold Ventures will not fund the aerial investigative effort proposed in St. Louis,” the statement said.

The pilot program in Baltimore took its final flight Oct. 31, and Mayor Brandon Scott said in December he had no interest in making the flights permanent.

“Most of Baltimore’s violence happens at night,” Scott said at the time. “The plane doesn’t work at night. And if you look at where we are with violence right now after having the plane, one would find it very hard to have a reason to continue it.”

The plane’s footage was to be used in combination with closed-circuit cameras on the ground and license plate readers. Scott said last month that he believed the city hadn’t invested to the point where that would pay off. Cameras are missing or outdated in certain places, while license plate readers are not properly deployed, he said.

A preliminary report from the Rand. Corp. indicated aerial surveillance in Baltimore “was associated with small increases in the rate at which police solved serious crimes, but an overall evaluation of the program will require a wider review of citywide police efforts.”

The report found the program may have helped police solve an additional 11 serious crimes during the six-month trial, but draws no conclusions about the program’s effectiveness.

Baltimore’s aerial surveillance program had already come under scrutiny. Police had threatened to end the program because of what they said were “serious breaches of confidentiality” by Persistent.

The surveillance plane first flew over Baltimore as part of a secret pilot program in 2016. Those flights were also funded by the Arnolds, although no approval was ever sought by the city’s Board of Estimates. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was unaware of the test, as was Baltimore City Council and State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

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