Officer.com Online Exclusive

New Surveillance Plane in Calif. Draws Praise, Protest

It's not a drone -- yet.

Outwardly, the small aircraft that started flying high above Lancaster this week is a far cry from the Pentagon's sleek unmanned spy planes. To be exact, it's a 33-year-old Cessna that cost about $100,000 before the bells and whistles.

But the modest-looking blue and silver plane, which was to start its regular flying on Friday has some impressive surveillance capabilities.

Its constantly recording video camera, controlled by sheriff's deputies on the ground, can zoom in within seconds to see a car or person from miles away and thousands of feet up. Thanks to its software, it can automatically track a suspect vehicle. Its infrared capability can see cars or people at night, even detecting how many people are inside a house because of the heat they give off.

It's likely just a matter of time until drones that do all that and more are flying over Lancaster and other cities. Unmanned aircraft aren't allowed for most civilian uses, but the Federal Aviation Administration has begun to issue permits for them to police departments and has said the number of drones is likely to expand dramatically in the next decade.

When that happens, Lancaster might be near the front of the line. The surveillance camera that now sits on its piloted Cessna 172 was designed so it could be moved to a drone. That would be more expensive up front, but the lack of a pilot would save money in the long run.

Taking a 'LEAPS'

On Thursday, the city and the Sheriff's Department held a press conference to show off the new "Law Enforcement Aerial Platform System," demonstrating the view from the ground on computer monitors at the sheriff's station, then letting reporters see the plane after it landed at an airfield a few miles away.

Sheriff's Capt. Robert Jonsen, who leads the 227 deputies at the Lancaster station, called the plane "the ultimate safety tool" and said it will dramatically

increase his deputies' effectiveness.

But the prospect of immediate citywide surveillance raised privacy concerns.

Two men came to General William J. Fox Airfield to protest the plane's unveiling, but were blocked from coming onto the tarmac where reporters stood by City Manager Mark Bozigian, who said access was limited to approved visitors.

One of the men, Lyle Talbot, wore a white T-shirt on which he'd painted a giant seeing eye in a circle with a line through it. Above that he wrote, "VOX POP," or voice of the people.

He said he was against the "eye in the sky" because he wanted privacy in his backyard. Standing next to him, David Abber voiced the same concern.

Abber, who came in last in a race for mayor in 2010, said he plans to go to court to challenge the use of the surveillance plane. He believes its use violates the Fourth Amendment's provision against warrantless searches of private property by the government.

Lancaster is apparently the first city in California to buy a surveillance plane, said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

Bibring said the ACLU did a public-records request for the technical details of the camera and believes its resolution is not great enough to present a major concern. He said it appears comparable to what a police officer in a helicopter can see.

But he said the infrared capability is more troubling, especially if it's used to see people inside homes without a warrant, which he called a clear constitutional violation. Bibring said the ACLU will keep monitoring to see how Lancaster uses the plane.

The city's contract with Aero View LLC anticipates a legal challenge, saying the city can suspend or terminate the deal if a court blocks the surveillance program.

At Thursday's press conference, Mayor R. Rex Parris made light of privacy concerns, joking, "The first one we looked at would actually see inside your house. Obviously, I wanted it. No one else did."

In a more serious mood, he said such worries are outweighed by the good the plane will do in catching criminals, deterring crime and saving deputies' time. Though the camera can see what people are wearing and what color their shoes are, Parris said it's

not good enough to distinguish faces.

"I think Google is far more invasive," he added to laughter.

Parris said deputies will be audited and footage can be reviewed at any time to detect abuse.

"There isn't going to be anybody looking in their girlfriend's backyard because there's a record of that," he said.

City owns plane

The city paid for and owns the plane, and Lancaster-based Aero View has contracted with the pilots who will fly it. The pilot gets commands on where to fly on a cockpit iPad.

But Jonsen said only sworn deputies will have access to video footage, which is encrypted as it's transmitted back to the sheriff's station. (The sheriff does all law enforcement in Lancaster under contract with the city. More than 100 deputies patrol the city.)

Lancaster has been working on an aerial surveillance plan for nearly four years. Estimates for the project were as high as $30 million but the city was able to do it for $1.3 million, Parris said.

That's how much the city paid up front under a five-year deal with Aero View signed in November. The company will operate the plane free for a year. After that, the city will pay more than $1 million a year to have the plane up an average of 10 hours a day. That works out to $297 an hour.

There was no bidding for the deal, Bozigian said, because the company had to "invent" a system from scratch that met Lancaster's budget.

If Aero View gets contracts with more cities or counties, Lancaster gets $5 off its hourly rate for each one. So if the company sells its services to 60 more clients, Lancaster pays nothing.

Helicopters flown by many agencies, including the Sheriff's Department, also have video cameras. But footage can be seen only by the pilots, and helicopters are more expensive to operate, roughly $500 to $900 an hour, Los Angeles police said.

The plane's digital recordings will be kept for at least two years by the Sheriff's Department, though they could be kept for longer in some cases.

They're time- and location- stamped for use in court.

During a demonstration at the station, Jonsen asked Deputy Pat Griffin, sitting at the controls, to zoom in to a Wal-Mart. With a few mouse clicks, the store parking lot filled a screen that moments before had shown almost the entire city.

Then Griffin picked a white truck at random and clicked to "lock" on it so the camera automatically followed it down the street.

Then he zoomed in on Eastside High School. Even from 3,000 feet up and a mile away, the view of the campus was clear.

"Is there anybody out on the playground today?" Jonsen asked.

At 10 a.m., there wasn't. But the point was made.

"It's a clear warning to the bad guys: You've got to be stupid to come to Lancaster," Parris said. "There's so many other places you should be, unless you want to go to prison."

The mayor said he'd like the city to buy another plane next year.

And Aero View hopes Lancaster's experience will be a selling point to other cities. There are 87 in Los Angeles County alone, and Spiral Technologies COO Ray Gretlein, whose company works with Aero View, would be glad to design surveillance systems for all of them.

"The more the merrier," he said.

Copyright 2012 - Daily News, Los Angeles

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Loading