Who is Doctor Ross McNutt?
Well, for starters, he’s the president of Persistent Surveillance System, a Dayton, Ohio, firm that operates aerial surveillance systems.
Shortly after the Freddie Gray riots in 2015, the city police department used private funds to have Ross McNutt set up an aerial surveillance system. The department didn’t tell the city’s elected leaders. The police squashed the program after a Bloomberg Businessweek article that created a public outcry. Now, Ross McNutt is back, trying to get approval for his plans for a camera-equipped drone and he’s no stranger to trial and error.
Now back in Baltimore, McNutt’s company has a friendlier name; Community Support Program.
“Had I taken a marketing class when I was doing my Ph.D, I wouldn’t have named it Persistent Surveillance Systems because it gives people the heebie-jeebies. And it doesn’t adequately describe what we do to give support to the community,” said McNutt at a Baltimore City Council meeting last month.
McNutt’s a 1987 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who got a doctorate in technology, management and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later, he became the commanding officer at The Air Force Institute of Technology, where he taught research and development.
“I joined the Air Force to fly, but my eyes weren’t good enough, so instead I was an engineer and built things,” says McNutt.
The camera equipped drone idea came from that assignment.
“And this was a class project that had actually run amuck.”
His students took the surveillance plane to Iraq and Afghanistan to help the Marines dispose of roadside bombs.
After seeing how useful the system was in the Mddle East, it dawned on him it could be converted to use at home. So, he got out of the Air Force and set up his company in the hangar of a small airport outside Dayton.
Since 2007, McNutt has been trying to sell his technology in a number of cities.
First there was Compton, California, where the Sheriff’s Department tested Ross’s technology without notifying residents or elected leaders, according to a 2014 report in the Los Angeles Times.
Residents and city leader got wind of the pilot and turned McNutt away.
Mayor Aja Brown was quoted in the article saying, “There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily.”
Five years later, the Compton City Council approved a contract with Aero View, a company that uses a scaled down version of McNutt’s technology, to provide aerial surveillance for $90,000 a month.
Then there was Juarez, Mexico, a city of 800,000 experiencing on average 130 murders a month in 2009, according the Guardian. Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz met Ross at a private security firm conference and had the money to pay for a pilot program. Ross says he was successful in reducing crime, but the operation got tied up in local politics.
“The mayor we were working with was going to run for governor, and then when the governor changed his allegiance, and selected someone else to replace him, our mayor sort of got sidelined,” says McNutt. “I don’t know everyone wanted the crime to be solved.”
Ferriz and Juarez official refused to comment.
In 2014, he tried to sell the idea in Dayton, where he ran into stiff opposition.
“This was just a bizarre story,” says Joel Pruce, an assistant professor of human rights at the University of Dayton.
Pruce led the charge against McNutt’s efforts to get the Dayton Police to use his technology when he was holding a news conference outside a city commission meeting.
“And there was an unfamiliar person across the street taking pictures of me with their cell phone. I guess I was speaking and there were cameras there too,” says Pruce.
The stranger came across the street and introduced himself as Ross McNutt.
“And I found that to be a certain kind of ironic because here he is running an organization called Persistent Surveillance Systems and he’s taking pictures anonymously of me from across the street,” says Pruce
The Dayton City Commission swiftly dismissed the program.
“He comes to the community with his track record, but his track record was gathered without prior consent.”
Pruce says people in Dayton worried the surveillance system would be used disproportionately on communities of color and set a precedent for future unmanned aerial surveillance.
But McNutt argues the technology can be used to hold police accountable.
“This can help provide an unbiased witness in police actions, and understand what happened there,” says McNutt. “And provide information that otherwise would not be available, or might be subject to dramatic misinterpretation.”
“Outside of a citizen review board or something that injects real accountability and transparency, I don’t trust police officers to police themselves,” says Pruce.
“It does not discriminate. It says the truth,” says Archie Williams, head of Community With Solutions, a Baltimore community group that is trying to bring McNutt’s technology back to the city. “And we have a problem with said officers disclosing said truth.”
Williams says at first he was skeptical of McNutt’s technology, but now.
“I mean I don’t look at it as big eye in the sky trying to catch all the black people. I don’t look at it like that,” says Williams. “We’re doing that enough without Ross.”
In addition to helping to curb the homicide rate, Williams says, the technology would hold police accountable.
“I don’t like police officers. I’ll be honest with you,” says Williams. “Police officers killed my brother.”
Williams’s brother, Arvel Williams, died in August 2014 after he was stunned with a Taser and arrested by Harford County Sheriff’s deputies who had chased him into Baltimore County because they suspected he was involved in a drug transaction.
“If Ross had been up and running I would have known exactly what happened at the scene of my brother’s scene,” says Williams.
City councilmembers at the hearing last month, accused McNutt of paying Williams to promote the technology.
Williams denies he’s being paid, but concedes McNutt helped him get his two-year-old son out of foster care.
“They wouldn’t even let me take him home, unless I had a car seat,” says Williams. And Ross offered and took me right to the Goodwill and gave me a car seat, and that’s out of the kindness of the man’s heart.
Last month, McNutt tried to sell the Baltimore City Council’s public safety committee on his idea, but northeastern district City Councilman Yitzy Schleifer wasn’t buying it.
“They never presented the value and the cost benefit on this program,” says Schleifer.
Schleifer says McNutt gave them multiple different answers to the same questions about how the technology works and the number of years the Texas-based philanthropists John and Laura Arnold who backed the 2015 efforts, would pay for it.
The Arnolds say the program has potential, but they are waiting to see a completed proposal with data from McNutt before they commit to fully fund it. So far, they say they have donated $360,000 to the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Police Foundation to be used towards the system.
The city council committee also asked McNutt for a proposal, but Schleifer says they have yet to receive one.
“When you want to come and present any technology especially one that has the ability to spy on a third of this city at a single time, you need to be as transparent, you have to be honest, you have to give us all the information, and let us analyze it,” Schleifer says.
Yet, it doesn’t really matter whether McNutt answers the council’s questions because the mayor and the next police commissioner will decide whether his technology returns.
And as McNutt waits for that decision, he has other projects he’s working on.
“The idea is you would take an Uber to the local airport, get in an airplane, have the airplane fly you to the end location, you get out and take an Uber to your meeting,” says McNutt.
Last summer, McNutt received part of a $6 million grant from Uber to create an unmanned, autonomous passenger aircraft.