The recent revelation that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department secretly conducted aerial surveillance of the entire city of Compton for nine days in 2012 prompted outrage from the city’s mayor, its residents and civil liberties groups.
The Sheriff’s Department justified the surveillance by saying it was only a brief test of a program provided by a private security company. A small, manned Cessna plane equipped with an array of cameras flew six hours a day and only in daylight, beaming video information back to the local sheriff’s station. The video allowed sheriff’s officials to go back and track images of several fender-benders, a series of necklace snatchings and a shooting. But the resolution was so bad that it was impossible to tell a man from a woman or a subcompact car from an SUV. So the Sheriff’s Department decided not to continue the program. No arrests were made based on the surveillance, according to a department spokeswoman. Nor has the department kept the recordings, officials say.
The surveillance program was first disclosed by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.
These days, police have all sorts of increasingly sophisticated (or invasive, depending on how you see it) surveillance techniques to choose from, including manned aircraft, drones, GPS devices and cameras mounted outside buildings, and they raise complicated questions about how much privacy Americans may want to relinquish in pursuit of security. But one thing is certain: Citizens in a democracy need to be aware of their choices in order to make educated decisions. The most egregious thing about the Compton surveillance test was not that it was done but that the department chose not to tell Compton’s elected officials or its residents about it ahead of time. The city of Lancaster also uses aerial surveillance, but at least officials and residents there have been informed.
One of the department’s explanations for not telling people about the aerial surveillance program was that it already makes use of security cameras in Compton city parks and at the Gateway Town Center. But that’s an insufficient justification for a program of such enormous breadth. Maybe citizens and officials would all have agreed that increased security was worth sending a camera-strapped Cessna flying over every inch of the city taking pictures of residents’ backyard barbecues. But there are indications that the Sheriff’s Department knew very well that people would not be happy with this. One department official involved with the project told the Center for Investigative Reporting that it was kept confidential to avoid complaints. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother,” he said.
And that’s exactly why they should have been told.