Did a Privately Funded Spy Plane Catch Cops Lying?
The plane operator discovered footage that shows Baltimore police could have lied about the shooting of a local man, but police brass didn't want to see it.
The plane operator discovered footage that shows Baltimore police could have lied about the shooting of a local man, but police brass didn't want to see it.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Kim Brown: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Kim Brown. The Baltimore City Police Department is corrupt, period, and residents here have valid and well-documented reasons to disbelieve when those in top leadership proclaimed dedication to transparency and accountability within their own ranks. Since the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody, BPD has been put under a federal consent decree with around a dozen officers indicted and found guilty of a myriad of felonies against the community and nearly 300 cops placed on a do not call to testify in court lists by the city state’s attorney’s office because of their willingness to lie. Now, despite all of this, Baltimore police continue to receive the lion’s share of the city’s budget and has even been offered outside help to allegedly fight crime.
In 2017, it was revealed that the police unbenounced to elected officials and the public at large allowed a privately funded spy plane to surveil the city during 2016. The purpose supposedly being to catch violent criminals and turns out the plane did capture a police shooting involving at least two cops who were convicted criminally on other incidents. But the attorney of the man shot says the spy plane footage could prove that the cops lied about this incident as well. This is all according to a new piece in theappeal.org by Brandon Soderberg. He is a Baltimore-based journalist and co-author of the forthcoming book about police corruption in Baltimore titled, I got a Monster and he joins us today in studio. Brandon, thank you so much for being here.
Brandon Soderberg: Thanks for having me.
Kim Brown: So let’s go back if we could to 2016 where there is a surveillance plane flying the skies of Baltimore city and everyone does not know this, but it happens to catch an incident involving a man named Jawan Richards, can you tell us what happened?
Brandon Soderberg: Sure, yeah. Really briefly, there was a spy plane. It’s a privately funded kind of developed by military technology, guy named Ross McNutt who runs a company called Persistent Surveillance Solutions. The plane was flying secretly because it was allegedly supposed to be capturing mostly violent crimes. It was flying from January to June and then a little into the summer anyway, and it works by, it’s a bunch of cameras that are always recording the city, 30 square miles at a time. In one of its flights on January 27th, 2016 it happens to catch on the kind of corner of its coverage, a police shooting. Two police officers, four police officers stop a man named Jawan Richards in two different cars. They stop him and they end up shooting him. They shoot him through the windshield of the car and he gets shot in the neck once. They later charge him with possession of a handgun and I think cannabis possession.
And then the story went, as police shooting, Mr. Richards tried to drive away. He tried to hit one of the cops with his car. He tried to crash into the cop cars. We had to shoot him. That was kind of the official story and that was really the story that happened with Richards up until a little earlier this year when Ivan Bates, Richards’ attorney finally was able to review plane footage of the incident. He didn’t even fully understand what the plane was at the time. No one really told him. And so he didn’t get this footage and his client ultimately pled guilty as a lot of people do. And so by September of 2016, eight months after the shooting, Richards is already pleading guilty, already about to be sentenced. And it’s around that same time that the police and the state’s attorney’s office find out via the spy plane folks that, Hey, this was captured. And according to Ivan Bates’ motion, which involved talking to this plane technologist Ross McNutt. Ross McNutt says that, we’re not interested in seeing the footage-
Kim Brown: When you say they, you mean Baltimore police, right?
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, yeah.
Kim Brown: The operator of the plane, the spy plane. That they were not interested in seeing this footage that depicted their officers involved in a civilian incident where someone ended up shot. The cops were not interested in this.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, right. Yeah. So one of the things that plane’s busy doing is capturing events, rewinding the footage and sort of giving police investigative tools by saying, Hey, the shooter of this alleged thing, they were in this car and they went this way or they went this, we could run the footage and watch it and ideally sort of get more investigative tools for a crime. So, and Ross McNutt, the plane guy, he would sort of investigate shootings the police asked them to because he was really trying to push his plane. When he would just see stuff on the news, he would go dig up the footage. That’s what he did with this.
He immediately reached out to police, be like, Hey, that police shooting from a little while ago, my plane captured that. And they said at the time, and I stress really that this is all in a motion, which defense theory Ivan Bates was able to have Ross sign an affidavit that says essentially the equivalent of sworn testimony, which Ross McNutt says, when I told the police about this, they said, we’re not really interested, if that gets out there are kind of exposed at the planes flying secretly. We didn’t really want to have that happen. By which I’d say, so they fly this plane secretly to capture crime. It captures a crime. They’re like, well, if we reveal it then it will reveal the plane. It’s kind of crazy. And then, yeah, sorry.
Kim Brown: I want to ask you about-
Brandon Soderberg: It’s complicated.
Kim Brown: It is a little complicated. But I want everyone who is concerned about the person who got shot.
How is Jawan Richards doing? I mean, what was the extent of his injuries? And you mentioned that he was charged with a crime, a couple of crimes actually in connection to this incident. So what happened with him? Is he, okay, first of all, and second of all, is he in jail or is he-
Brandon Soderberg: He’s now out. He’s already served his sentence for this because it’s almost, it’s more than four years later. Richards ultimately was okay. I mean, he was shot in the neck. He survived. I guess I should stress, if that wasn’t clear. I don’t know his health in general, but I mean he’s out of jail now. And this motion is sort of one of an attempt to vacate his sentence because of the supposedly lies that the plane shows.
Kim Brown: So there’s so much corruption and so many different stories of corruption percolating throughout Baltimore Police Department. And the fact that two of the officers on the scene were charged criminally, not with this incident, but a separate incident. Can you talk to us about who these cops are and what they were charged with?
Brandon Soderberg: Sure. So the two cops that shot Jawan Richards in January 2016 were Carmine Vignola and Robert Hankard. They were sort of tangentially related to what’s called the Gun Trace Task Force, which is a group of seven cops in an ongoing federal investigation of police corruption. These seven cops who were all indicted in March of 2017 were stealing from people, robbing drug dealers.
Kim Brown: Stealing from citizens.
Brandon Soderberg: Stealing from citizens, robbing drug dealers, re-dealing drugs, planting guns on people. A lot of different things. In this sort of ongoing investigation, it sort of spiraled out. In total I think a dozen cops now had been somehow criminally charged. But in 2019, Vignola, who was one of the shooters, was charged and earlier this year, Robert Hankard was finally charged. And what they were charged with was a 2014 case in which the Gun Trace Task Force leader, Wayne Jenkins, ran a man over and then why he ran them over, I don’t know. He ran this man over and then he called a few cops, including Hankard and Vignola and was like, Hey, anybody got a gun or a BB gun I could plant on somebody to kind of justify saying, Hey, I thought he had a gun. He was going to aim it at me. I had to run him over.
And so they were both, Vignola and Hankard, who shot Richards were indicted for that in 2019 and 2020. So then it’s sort of been attorney. Ivan Bates’ head sort of rings like, Oh, those are those officers from my other case in 2016 Richards. He starts to dig into it more. It’s about the same time all this was happening because of reporting I had been doing on these corrupt cops that I learned that the police shooting of Richards was captured by a plane. I was able to get some documents that showed that. I was able to speak to the plain guy, Ross McNutt, who confirmed it. I eventually got this sort of big evidence packet from a few different sources. I was able to confirm this happen and so when the plane was announced at the beginning end of 2019 that was going to fly this May, I published a quick story about it and just was like, Hey, by the way, everybody, it captured a police shooting and not only that, but the plane guy, Ross’s argument was, he said to the police, this contradicts what the police claimed.
And from that, just to see how kind of cloaked in secrecy this all was, it was only because of that story. And I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, just the sequence of events that happened, was because of that story, Richards’ attorney Ivan Bates, called me and was like, “Wait, there’s video of this thing?”, and I was like, yeah, there’s video of it. So then Ivan Bates was able to talk to plane guy and much to the credit of Ross McNutt, the plane surveillance guy, he was like, sure, I’ll show you the footage and I’ll sign an affidavit. I tried to do all these things and so Ivan eventually sees the footage and really starts to see the contradictions of it.
Kim Brown: Well and see and that’s the stunning thing and I do want us to circle back because we need to make it clear, like the police are flying a spy plane over Baltimore city for the purposes of catching crimes. The plane caught a crime committed allegedly by police and the police are not interested in it and the plane is going to fly again actually and we’re going to hear from Baltimore Police Commissioner, Michael Harrison. He’s announcing, as Brandon just said, that the spy plane is going to return to Baltimore skies in May of 2020. Let’s take a listen.
Michael Harriso…: The pilot program will be limited in scope to only investigating past events and will not be used for real time active surveillance, meaning there is no real live streaming and live feeds. Second, the video feeds will not be directly accessible by Baltimore Police Department officers. Instead, the company supplying the planes will provide us with evidence packages that are specific to incidents that have already been reported. Third, the information collected during the pilot program will only be used by the department to investigate the most serious offenses, specifically murders, shootings, armed robberies to include carjackings. Fourth, there will be an independent third party civilian auditing team that will review BPDs use of the program to ensure that we are following the program’s exact guidelines on privacy, inappropriate use of the system. There will also be independent group of research partners to assess what the impact of the pilot program was on clearance rates, solvability of crimes and any crime suppression that can be observed.
Kim Brown: So Brandon, we just heard from the Baltimore Police Commissioner there, Michael Harrison in which he outlines the ways in which this plane will be used again in another trial run. This one, we’re going to tell everybody about –
Brandon Soderberg: It’s at least not secret this time.
Kim Brown: The first one was completely secret, but a couple of things that he said. He said that the city is going to rely on independent third party oversight and also going to rely on independent researchers to ascertain whether or not the plane is actually effective in clearance rates for a particular crime. So in your opinion, just based on your reporting, do you think that the city is disclosing enough about the kind of information that is being collected, who has access to it, where it will be stored? You know, because really this is in the hands of a private entity and not really subject to public oversight.
Brandon Soderberg: Right. So I mean they’re certainly saying it’s going to … we’ll know it’s in the air, but a lot of the details are really fuzzy and I think they’re kind of cloaking in this like, well this is just a test. We’re just, this is the pilot program so we don’t have to have it all worked out. That’s why we’re flying this plane secretly over the city … unsecretly over the city this time so we can figure out all the details. But the immediate questions to ask is like, so now the police won’t have any access to it. So it all be private. The private company, Persistent Surveillance and their technician. So just dudes that the technology guy hires will be looking at this footage of access to these guys.
Kim Brown: Who are these guys? Do they have security clearances, like they’re not state employees, they’re not employees of the police department.
Brandon Soderberg: They’re hired by the … and then there’s … to really give credit to the reporter who broke this all open, which was initially in a Bloomberg Businessweek article back in 2016, that was the first article exposed it. That article goes through some of the hiring practices and a McNutt’s company mostly focused on people who are good at video games because it’s a lot like a video game to watch and manipulate the footage. So it’s a bunch of video game dudes watching Baltimore all day, every day. So yeah, so there’s that, there’s that. And then the idea is that these private technicians will prepare evidence dossiers about what they’ve observed. So if there’s a shooting on X street at Y time, they’ll pull that footage up and they’ll say, here’s what we’ve observed. And by rewinding it or fast forwarding and in theory they can, you know, get some additional information.
Hey, the car that drove away after the shooting, that car then went to this street. And then we see one of the people go into the house and they should probably go look at that house. And then through Baltimore’s already vast amounts of surveillance, namely, we have a city watch program here, which is almost a thousand cameras that record street corners, blue light cameras you see on the wire and all those things. We have a bunch of those in Baltimore. And so those will be sort of cross referenced and in theory you can solve crimes through that. I bring this all up because an evidence packet was precisely what was given to police and prosecutors in 2016 when Jawan Richards was shot and the police and prosecutors ignored it. And the prosecutors said that it didn’t show what the plane people said it showed.
So there’s kind of already, so even there’s one example where it was perhaps could have helped a person four years ago. The police and the prosecutors, they either tried to avoid dealing with it or they just straight up said the footage is not helpful, even though it’s since been shown it would have really, it showed a lot of lies. And so there’s that. And then really quickly you have obviously Fourth Amendment concerns. You know you have the right to like a reasonable search and seizure. The most obvious way to look at that as like, if I was sitting in my car and I was in a van and I got a handgun on the backseat and a cop walks by, that’s in plain view. P-L-A-I-N, not plane, plain view. Cop was like, Hey man, I walked by your car, you got like a gun in there. I got to kind of look into that.
But if it’s not in plain view, the officer needs to have a warrant. What the plane does is, it creates everything in plain view and that’s a big problem. And that’s a huge headache and concern for constitutional lawyers, for sure. And it creates the sort of assumption that we’ve all agreed to this, whether we have or not is another problem. Same with like, if a cops can see over your fence that you’re doing something wrong, then they’re allowed to sort of say, Hey, it’s in plain view. I can come in. If you say they can’t they need to get a warrant or something like that. So there’s that. Also Harrison has said it’s only going to be used in this pilot program to investigate homicides, non-fatal shootings, robberies, car carjackings, violent crimes. What it does, if you’re a defense attorney like Ivan Bates, is this footage kind of only being used against people.
It’s not really being used to exonerate people or get them, again, with the Richards case is such a glaring example of it where it showed lies. They’ve explicitly been asked by reporters will you use this to look at police conduct. They said, no.
Kim Brown: Wait a minute. The company said that this tool can be used to review police conduct. The police themselves said, no, that’s not the way that we want to use this.
Brandon Soderberg: They’re presenting-
Kim Brown: They said that out loud.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, yeah. They were asked. And they were kind of like, well perhaps you know down the line, but, and I bring this all up again because the Gun Trace Task Force scandals begins in 2017 and is still ongoing. It was really sort of, you know, is massive amounts of mistrust. There is a way in which you could argue that if they were looking at the footage the plane guy in 2016 was telling them to look at, then we could have possibly exposed this like sort of massive ring of drug dealing within the police department early because cops adjacent to it were caught lying and maybe there could have been some way to move through that and they could have started looking at these other cops, things like that.
And their crimes were so egregious. I mean even with this Jawan Richards shooting, just really, you know, I’ve seen this footage that I’m writing about and the most shocking thing, many shocking things, but one of the most shocking things about it is when you watch the footage, you get to see it like frame by frame. There’s this little clock, so you get to see the seconds tick by.
Kim Brown: So it’s not rolling video footage, it’s still images?
Brandon Soderberg: But it’s a series of still images. Yeah. Yeah. And when you watch it, you see the two cars that the cops were in, pull up and within seconds they’re shooting at Richards. So that’s the kind of information that would have been glaringly obvious to anyone that would have reviewed the footage, it would have vastly contradicted what the police said because their whole story was, Richards tried to get away from us when we stopped him. He backed in, he did all these things, the footage contradicts a great deal of that. Not all of it, but a great deal of it. And it shows that they kind of played fast and loose with the facts to make Richards look worse than he, whatever he did.
Kim Brown: Is his attorney trying to get his conviction thrown out?
Brandon Soderberg: Okay. So that’s another complicated thing. I apologize. He is. The motion is to say this should, to get this overturned off his record, exonerate, vacate this conviction. At the same time, there is another motion by the state’s attorney’s office now to get rid of Richards’ conviction as well. Now their motion is essentially the same, vacate this conviction, but what the state’s attorney’s office wants to do is they want to simply say it’s because these officers have been indicted, their integrity is compromised, we’re getting rid of all these cases. They become part of these 290 cops. There’s 25 that State’s Attorney Mosby right now is focusing on, sort of moving through these cases and just like vacating or getting people out of jail.
I bring that up because, in a sense, this motion that I wrote about by basis, it’s duplicative of another motion, they are both trying to do the same thing. But the major differences that the state’s attorneys want it as simple as like these cops have integrity issues so we’ve got to get it out and it kind of cleans it up a little bit and that’s certainly what Ivan Bates said to me. He feels like it cleans it up a little bit because, okay, you can S you can, let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt, whether we should or not, let’s just do it for a second here. Okay. You didn’t know about any of this misbehavior of these cops until it’s all exposed by the federal government, by the Department of Justice, that the exception at least with be with this case, cause there was a plane that captured it, that the plane guy was telling them to look at.
And so separate from anything that came out years later because of federal investigations, there is nothing other than a negligence on the part of the department and the state’s attorney’s office that prevented them from knowing this was a questionable charge. So why Jawan Richards had to wait four years until the federal government came and investigated the Baltimore Police Department and started dropping indictments on their heads. It’s only because of those things that Richards is even … has nothing to do with this case at all. And Ivan Bates has sort of put this motion out. He said, to kind of show the full story of what happened to Jawan Richards, which was not as simple as, Hey, these cops are dirty so we just get all their cases out. That’s the clean way to fix this. Like we don’t know what these guys were doing. We knew they lie a lot. This was saying, Hey, there was this video at the time that they could have had access to if they felt like it, that would have long ago exonerated Richards.
Kim Brown: So Brandon, we’re running a little low on time, but I wanted to ask you about the billionaire philanthropists who are funding the spy plane program, the aerial surveillance program, which is going to again, be in the skies over Baltimore this summer. Who are these people? Why do they have money to spend to put a plane in the air over Baltimore city and why do they care?
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, it’s a whole other thing. Yeah. I don’t know why anybody with a lot of money does anything, but they’re the Arnold’s, it’s a couple who are billionaires based in Houston. They have funded … this plane won’t cost the city of Baltimore anything monetarily. We are selling our private lives to it every day that it records this stuff.
Kim Brown: And Commissioner Harrison used that as a selling point during his press conference he said, and this is not going to cost the city taxpayers a dime and that should set off alarm bells. I would think to the average person who concerned about privacy.
Brandon Soderberg: Yeah, right, exactly. And so that’s kind of the pitch here is Hey, it’s free, we can just take it. The city doesn’t have to pay anything for it. Anyway, the Arnold’s are a sort of venture capitalists. They funded the plan in the past. In 2016, they funded it and they’ve become interested in it I guess because they think it’s an interesting kind of like technocratic solution to crime. Why they care about Baltimore, their connection to Baltimore is I think entirely because the plane, it’s sort of low trying to locate a city that they wanted to try it in, which is what the company wants to do, try to sell it. They located Baltimore, I think, because of our homicide rate is high. But I don’t, there’s no real connection between the city and the Arnold’s. They haven’t said anything other than I think they’d see this as a valid thing to consider as a way of stopping crime, which I’d add that during the test flight in 2016, it was very ineffective.
Council president Brandon Scott, who used to run the public safety committee, has especially been a major critic of it and say there are community-based solutions, traum-oriented solutions, basic police solutions that we haven’t gotten right that would reduce crime much more efficiently than this plane. And then of course that’s again this side thing, there was this thing that it captured that was a crime that they willingly, that the police and the prosecutors, willingly ignored.
Kim Brown: Indeed. Well, it’s a very fascinating and complex series of events, but I definitely suggest that you go to theappeal.org and check out Brandon’s story. We’ve been speaking today with Brandon Soderberg in his latest piece. Like I said, theappeal.org, it’s titled Baltimore Defense Attorneys Claim Surveillance Plane Footage Contradicts Law Enforcement Account of Police Shooting.
Brandon’s also the coauthor of the forthcoming book due out in July called, I Got a Monster. Brandon, we appreciate you coming in and taking the time to explain this as best as you could.
Brandon Soderberg: I tried.
Kim Brown: Because this is insane, but I’m definitely going to be interested in reading more of your reporting about the spy plane because this is going to be happening all summer. So if you’re in Baltimore, don’t look up and you see the plane flying over your head this summer. Brandon, we appreciate your time today.
Brandon Soderberg: Thanks for having me.
Kim Brown: Thank you. And thank you for watching the Real News Network.