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In the Media: BPD Secret Aerial Surveillance; President's RoundTable in Support of Port Covington

Port Covington
Under Armour

A digest of Baltimore news from local sources.

From the Baltimore Sun: Report of secret aerial surveillance by Baltimore police prompts questions, outrage

"The revelation that a private company has been conducting secret aerial surveillance on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department — collecting and storing footage from city neighborhoods in the process — caused confusion, concern and outrage Wednesday among elected officials and civil liberties advocates.

"Some demanded an immediate stop to the program pending a full, public accounting of its capabilities and its use in the city to date, including in the prosecution of criminal defendants. Some called it 'astounding' in its ability to intrude on individual privacy rights, and legally questionable in terms of constitutional law.

"Others did not fault the program but said it should have been disclosed publicly before it began in January.

"The program — in which Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems has for months been testing sophisticated surveillance cameras aboard a small Cessna airplane flying high above the city — was first disclosed Tuesday in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek. The publication was given exclusive access to the company's testing.

"The arrangement was kept secret in part because it never appeared before the city's spending board, paid for instead through private donations handled by the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation.

"T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, confirmed Wednesday that the company had conducted 100 hours of surveillance in January and February and 200 hours of surveillance between June and this month. It will continue conducting surveillance for another several weeks before the Police Department evaluates its effectiveness and decides whether to continue the program, he said.

"Smith acknowledged that the plane's cameras can record footage of 32 square miles of the city at any given moment and that its work had never been publicly disclosed. But he took issue with characterization of the program as 'secret surveillance,' suggesting there was no need for the department to make it public. He likened the program to an expansion of the city's existing CitiWatch system of street-level cameras.

"'There was no conspiracy not to disclose it,' he said. 'We consistently go out and get ourselves involved in new technology, find different ways to bring that technology to Baltimore.'

"Others disagreed about the need for disclosure.

"'I'm angry that I didn't know about it and we did it in secrecy, which is unacceptable,' said City Councilman Brandon Scott. 'We have to be transparent about it and we have to make sure that we're using it in the right way, especially given all of the things that have come out about the Police Department.'

"But Scott, who is vice chair of the council's Public Safety Committee, said he is interested in learning more about the program and how it could help address crime.

"'I will say that one of the No. 1 complaints I get from citizens is that they want CCTV on their block,' he said. 'We have to get past the emotion, like I've done, and try to understand it. A lot of black people have asked for CCTV surveillance in their neighborhoods.'

"David Rocah, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, was sharply critical. 'The fact that the city of Baltimore thought that they could adopt it in secret with no public input is beyond astounding,' he said.

"Rocah said the technology is 'virtually equivalent to attaching a GPS tracker to each and every one of us every time we walk out of our house or office building.' Any assurance that the resolution of the footage does not allow for individuals to be identified is misleading, he said.

"'The fact that you can't use the camera to identify a face is utterly irrelevant to its intrusiveness, because they can match that pixelated dot to a person — whether identified or not — going into and out of particular buildings,' he said. 'Even without other technology, that simple fact can be used to identify us.'

"Then, Rocah said, the surveillance footage 'can be matched with the more than 700 street-level surveillance cameras that are already installed all over the city of Baltimore, particularly in the poorest and most African-American neighborhoods in the city.'

"He said the police should "'mmediately discontinue use unless or until the City Council holds hearings on this, and I would hope that the City Council would prohibit the Police Department from employing this kind of mass surveillance technology.'"

Full Article

From the Baltimore Sun: Use of local foundation allowed Baltimore police surveillance project to remain secret

"The Baltimore Police Department was able to keep secret the funding for a surveillance plane that monitored wide swaths of the city by routing project funds through a private foundation — whose director says he was not aware of the purpose of the spending.

"A Texas-based private donor supplied $120,000 intended for the city surveillance project but delivered to the nonprofit Baltimore Community Foundation, which manages at least two charitable funds for police.

"Thomas E. Wilcox, president of the Baltimore Community Foundation, said in an interview Wednesday that foundation officials did not know what the money was for.

"'We did not know anything about a surveillance program,' Wilcox said. 'We do 3,000 grants a year. Someone asks us to give a grant to an organization, whether it's Wounded Warrior or the YMCA, we make the grant.'

"Asked whether the foundation should have exercised more oversight, Wilcox said: 'We're constantly monitoring our process and trying to improve, and we'll go on doing that.'

"By law in Baltimore, taxpayer-funded financial transactions over $25,000 must go through the city's five-member Board of Estimates for approval. The money for the surveillance program carried out by an Ohio-based company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, never passed through city officials' hands, enabling police and the donor to avoid disclosure until the program was described in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek.

"Several board members of the Baltimore Community Foundation — which includes representatives from institutions such as T. Rowe Price, the Johns Hopkins University, real estate firms and other nonprofits — declined to comment, saying that they were unaware of the organization's role in facilitating the funding.

"Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who the foundation says has been a board member since 2014, said through a spokesman that since being informed of the surveillance program, he intends to 'look into it.'

"For years, police have been buying equipment and financing projects using hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to the Baltimore Community Foundation. Corporations such as Target, Wal-Mart and Under Armour have announced contributions of tens of thousands of dollars to police through the foundation, though its donor lists are not themselves public."

Full Article

From the AFRO American: Making the Case for Port Covington

"The President’s RoundTable of Baltimore, an organization of Black CEOs, has gone on record in support of the $5.5 billion dollar Port Covington Water front Project proposed by UnderArmour Founder Kevin Plank and championed by Sagamore Development. However, the group does want changes made to the agreement that would benefit minority contractors and workers before it is finalized.

"President’s Roundtable Chair Sheila Brooks said RoundTable members have been directly engaged with Sagamore executives to ensure communities of color benefit from the proposed unprecedented multi-billion dollar, mixed-use development. 'We have been in discussions with Sagamore Development for some time now on a collaborative strategy to support minority equity participation that would be beneficial for Baltimore,' Brooks, who is also President and CEO of SRB Communications, told the AFRO.

"Opponents of the Port Covington Project have expressed concerns that people-of-color and low wealth residents will be left behind with respect to employment and housing opportunities.  But in a statement, Brooks countered that the RoundTable’s involvement is a voice that served as an advocate for those very communities.  'The President’s RoundTable is committed to economic development initiatives that stimulate Baltimore’s economy and create jobs in our communities,' Brooks said. 'This the core belief underlying our approach to working in collaboration with Sagamore, Under Armor and Plank Industries,' she said.

"Jim Davenport, President of American Technology Corporation and a member of the President’s Roundtable, supports the Port Covington Project but appeared before the City Council Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee earlier this month to oppose Project Labor Agreements that may be packaged with a vote on the $535 million-dollar Port Covington TIF (tax incentive financing) request the Council will consider this Fall.

"Davenport said, Project Labor Agreements or PLA’s would restrict minority hiring. 'I see this as once again allowing trade unions [to] import labor from outside the city and state to meet demands that could go to local Black and woman owned businesses,' Davenport said. 'I am very disturbed when I visit construction sites in this city and see the lack of people that look like me,' Davenport, who is African American, said.

"The President’s RoundTable members joins a number of civic and community groups supporting the Port Covington Development project including The SB Six Coalition representing the South Baltimore communities of Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, Curtis Bay, Lakeland, Mount Winans and Westport, all communities that border the proposed project and Hungry Harvest, a nationally-recognized social-entrepreneurship venture.

"Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been a consistent supporter of Port Covington and has stated that she would like to sign TIF legislation before she leaves office at the end of the year.

"The President’s RoundTable, founded in 1983, is an organization of African-American private sector and non-profit CEO’s and presidents who oversee organizations with combined assets exceeding 1.1 billion support and employ a combined 1750 employees. Full disclosure: Jake Oliver, CEO and Publisher of the AFRO, is member. The organization’s mission is to advocate for the growth of minority business."

Full Article