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LAPD gets approval to begin recording, storing aerial footage of protests

A Los Angeles Police Department helicopter keeps watch on protesters marching through the UCLA campus in Westwood.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Department received approval Tuesday to begin recording and storing aerial footage of protests and other large gatherings from its helicopters — a new capability that the department said would expand its “operational readiness” and that protesters and civil liberties advocates denounced as unconstitutional government surveillance.

“This is the height of state repression and surveillance,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and leader of some of the largest protests in recent L.A. history. “It’s criminalizing our right to protest.”

The approval came via a unanimous Police Commission vote to accept a donation of $2,150 worth of recording equipment from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a private philanthropic entity that has long bankrolled equipment desired by the LAPD but not budgeted for or prioritized by the city.

The vote followed a brief discussion about the practicalities of the equipment, its intended uses and the privacy issues it could raise.

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Police drones and other law enforcement aircraft with aerial recording capabilities have raised concerns across the country in recent years, particularly when it comes to their use over protests and other constitutionally protected activities.

However, when asked about those concerns Tuesday, Deputy Chief Peter Zarcone, who heads the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, did not equivocate. He said it was the LAPD’s specific intention to use the equipment to record protests.

“If the privacy concern is that that should not be done, then that would preclude what we’re trying to do,” Zarcone said.

Right now, 10 LAPD helicopters — or about half the department’s fleet — are equipped with technology that allows for video to be transmitted to commanders on the ground, who can watch the feeds in real time. However, those feeds cannot be recorded or stored.

The new equipment — including two recorders, two mobile hard drives and two video encoders — will “allow the footage to be preserved, expanding the Department’s operational readiness and capacity,” the LAPD wrote in its pitch to the commission for approval of the donated equipment.

Zarcone said that the LAPD keeps records on when aerial filming is requested and when it is approved but that no explicit policies exist around what types of events can be recorded. He said footage recorded from the helicopters would probably be held indefinitely, just like body-camera footage and police dashboard video.

Mohammad Tajsar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, said the recording of protests — and the long-term storage of the footage — is extremely problematic.

“It’s bad enough that Angelenos in overpoliced neighborhoods have to deal with constant surveillance and harassment from the skies, but the LAPD’s plans to keep that footage forever adds insult to injury,” Tajsar said.

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He said police recording of protests “really should be understood as an intimidation tactic to try to prevent people from exercising their right to free speech” and “should raise red flags all over City Hall.”

Tajsar said the LAPD has a range of other technologies — including facial recognition software — that could be used in conjunction with the surveillance footage, escalating the potential for invasive breaches of people’s privacy. Some modern cameras are powerful enough to identify individuals in crowds from above, adding to the concern, he said.

The LAPD has used facial recognition software nearly 30,000 times since 2009, with officers running suspect images against a mugshot database.

“We’re heading for a real nightmare scenario where the LAPD’s secretive technology can identify anybody from a crowd of protesters with a click of a mouse,” he said. “That to me is incredibly disturbing.”

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Tajsar said Angelenos “don’t need to know anything more to conclude” that recording protests is “a real problem and should not happen,” but if it is going to happen, they should demand answers to certain questions — including how powerful the cameras are on the LAPD’s helicopters, how the LAPD is going to use the footage, whether it will be used in conjunction with other technologies like facial recognition, who will have access to it and whether its use will be audited.

Abdullah said the LAPD already routinely hovers over protests with its helicopters. “We’re not surprised by it,” she said.

However, to know that police intend to begin recording the events below is another thing entirely, she said, and she wonders “what all of this could be used for, and how it criminalizes folks.”

Beyond the fears of protesters, recordings of protests could allow police to review large demonstrations days and weeks later, and could supplement body-camera and other ground-level surveillance footage in situations that later come under investigation.

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Several incidents in which police officers badly wounded protesters with projectiles during demonstrations this summer were captured by officers’ body cameras, but others have occurred without any footage being found.

Aerial footage of protests could also assist in reviews of police tactics, such as those being conducted now for the summer protests, including by showing how crowds moved and where tensions first escalated.


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