Baltimore police, ACLU settle dispute over secret fund for high-tech gear

Baltimore police, ACLU settle dispute over secret fund for high-tech gear

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Themelis brokered a settlement agreement in a lawsuit over the release of records detailing a confidential fund the city established in January to purchase high-tech police surveillance gear.

Under the settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Baltimore Police Department, the city yesterday released edited financial records of expenditures from the $250,000 fund and kept secret the technical details of the IT, wiretap and video gear it had purchased.

Both sides claimed victory in the case of Viva House v. Baltimore Police Department.

'This information will now allow members of the Baltimore City Council to provide oversight of the fund,' according to a statement by Dwight Sullivan, ACLU attorney. 'The public's right to know has been vindicated.'

Sean R. Malone, chief legal counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, said his agency had succeeded in keeping confidential the technical details of the systems it bought, which is essential to combating the lavishly funded drug rings the city seeks to break up. 'Money is not an object for the drug trade,' Malone said. 'If we divulge technical information, the drug trade will counteract it; unlike them, our funds are limited.'

Malone said the police department already had revealed the amount of money and the purpose of the fund. 'We will never divulge the technical information about the equipment purchased unless ordered by a court,' he said. 'We believe the statute, if interpreted correctly, would never force us to hand over this information.'

The ACLU had brought a lawsuit seeking release of the records on behalf of Viva House, a charity in a low-income Baltimore neighborhood. Viva House was not the target of any surveillance, both sides in the lawsuit said.

Viva House is dedicated to helping the poor and runs a soup kitchen, a food pantry, an after-school program and a summer program. It receives no government funds, the civil rights activist group said.

The police department had declined to release the information under the Maryland Public Information Act. According to the ACLU, Col. John V. Pignataro, chief of IT for the department, said release of some information would not menace public safety.

The ACLU and Viva House earlier had criticized the Baltimore Board of Estimate's approval in January of the fund for confidential police operations on the grounds that it was inappropriate at a time when city residents faced a 20 percent income tax increase and other pressing needs. 'The Mayor wants to give the police whatever they want, and the rest of the city has to go begging,' said Viva House campaigner Brendan Walsh in a statement issued when the lawsuit was filed in June.

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