The Conversation

Aerial Surveillance System was Tested Over Compton without Residents' Knowledge

Is aerial monitoring of our city streets the future of policing? A system that would make it a reality has already been tested in several including some locations in California.

For nine days in early 2012, the LA County Sheriff's office monitored the city of Compton using a high-tech camera system mounted inside a circling Cessna airplane. The system, known as the Hawkeye II, was part of a test to see if using it would generate leads in unsolved crimes.

Details of the test were revealed in a video report published earlier this month by a non-profit journalism group based in Berkeley. The reaction from Compton residents has been mixed. Ellen Harris, a 67 year old resident of the city tells the LA Times "We are not all criminals.... It's an invasion of privacy." But 87 year old Bob Nelson tells the Times "I see nothing wrong with it myself."

The city of Lancaster was part of a similar test program involving a circling fixed wing aircraft sending live video to police. A different company provided the technology for that test. The other difference is that the Lancaster test was well publicized and approved by city leaders beforehand.

In Compton's case, neither residents nor city leaders knew what was taking place. An LA county Sheriff's office spokesperson told reporters for the Center for Investigative Reporting that the decision was made to keep things quiet to avoid pushback from those with privacy concerns.

The Hawkeye system was developed by Persistent Surveillance Systems in Ohio. Ross McNutt, the CEO of PSS, created a similar system for the Air Force in Iraq. The goal there was to keep an eye on people burying roadside bombs and be able to track them from the street back to a house where the bombs were built. But McNutt saw an obvious civilian law enforcement application for the technology.

The resolution of the Hawkeye II system tested in Compton is enough to see individual cars and people but not enough to view license plates or give even a vague a description of an individual. On a computer screen it looks like a real time version of Google earth with one important advantage: authorities can rewind to look for leads after a crime has been reported.

Ultimately the Hawkeye II system was not adopted by LA County for use over Compton. Police decided that the resolution of the camera system wasn't high enough to make it worthwhile. The city of Lancaster did adopt similar technology, known as the LEAPS program. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said in 2012 at the announcement of the city's decision "At the end of the day what we have is Defense Department security on a civilian budget."

Here is the full investigative report by CIR including interviews and details on the test of the Hawkeye II system over Compton.

Photo: file


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