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BALTIMORE — With the planes grounded months ago, Baltimore’s spending board voted unanimously Wednesday to cancel the city’s contract for aerial surveillance for the police department.
The controversial pilot program, funded by a pair of Texas donors, took its final Baltimore flight Oct. 31. For six months until then, several planes owned by Persistent Surveillance Systems circled the city’s skies, capturing images of 32 square miles in hopes of reducing the violent crime rate.
The temporary program received only narrow approval in the first place. Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted 3-2 in April to begin the program, over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates.
Since then, Democrat Brandon Scott has replaced Democrat Bernard C. “Jack” Young as mayor. Scott, formerly City Council president, cast one of the two votes against the program in April, and he said in December he had no intention of continuing the flights.
The entire five-member board, three seats of which are now controlled by Scott, approved the program’s termination Wednesday.
Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby, who chairs the board, questioned why the contract needed to be canceled, as it was scheduled to expire later this year. Mosby also asked if the cancellation would change a schedule for the release of reports analyzing the planes’ effectiveness.
Lisa Walden, a city attorney representing the Baltimore Police Department, said allowing the contract to continue would be “less transparent.” Termination now, she added, would not change the timeline for the reports.
The decision to cancel the contract comes shortly before the city is due to appear in court to defend itself against a lawsuit filed by the ACLU over the plane’s use. A federal judge previously sided with the city in the dispute, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided late last year to consider the case.
Acting City Solicitor Jim Shea, who also sits on the Board of Estimates, said before Wednesday’s meeting that with the contract terminated, the city would tell the court the legal dispute is moot.
Democratic Comptroller Bill Henry, also a spending board member, asked about how long the data collected by the surveillance planes would be retained.
Walden said city officials are working with Persistent Surveillance Systems to delete 85% of the data collected. The remaining 15% will be kept for ongoing criminal investigations, as permitted by the city’s contract with the company. The contract said data from the planes was to be stored for only 45 days, unless it was needed for an investigation.
“We’re in the process of getting a certificate of destruction from the vendor,” Walden said.
Walden said any defendants who are criminally charged with the help of surveillance plane footage will have access to the data related to their alleged crime, as well as 15 minutes of footage before and after the incident.
Henry asked whether the footage would be publicly available via the state’s Public Information Act.
Walden said the data is held by the vendor, not the city, and is therefore not subject to the act.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Scott said that given the persistent violence in the city, he understands why some residents have supported the surveillance plane program. But preliminary reviews showed there was no significant difference between crimes investigated with the use of the planes and those without, he said.
“We are building a full strategy around public safety in Baltimore, not gimmicks,” Scott said.
Last month, Arnold Ventures, the company that financed the surveillance program in Baltimore, announced it was walking away from funding the technology elsewhere. Persistent Surveillance Systems was nearing a deal in St. Louis for a similar program; the company’s president said he had other potential donors in mind.