Police in Lancaster, Calif., will be taking to the sky to help keep the city and its residents safer.

The Lancaster City Council approved on Tuesday evening, Nov. 8, a proposal to add an aerial law enforcement surveillance system to its crime fighting toolbox. Called the Law Enforcement Aerial Platform System (LEAPS), the video technology sits on a small plane and can follow a suspect or target from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above the ground.

Created by Aero View and developed by Spiral Technology, LEAPS uses both visible and infrared imagery for tracking. City officials said that at the closest level of surveillance, its new “eye in the sky” can identify the color of a person’s clothing, but facial details and license plate numbers will not be visible.

In an e-mail to Government Technology, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris touted the crime-stopping and prevention advantages that aerial coverage will provide the city.

“Everyone knows you see more from above, cover a wider range of observance and are capable of more accurate pursuit with an aerial unit,” he said. The real-time value of LEAPS, Parris said, will be the ability to provide ground patrol units information on criminals’ movements.

Lancaster is joining a growing number of U.S. cities — big and small — whose law enforcement is taking to the skies with blimps, drones and other flying craft for crime-fighting purposes.

This isn’t the first time Lancaster has attempted to add aerial coverage to its law enforcement arsenal. According to the Los Angeles Times, two years ago a similar program with another vendor was shut down after residents and privacy advocates raised “Big Brother” concerns regarding the technology.

The Lancaster Sheriff’s Station will have full control over the new system, including the data recorded, which will be encrypted and transmitted directly to the Sheriff’s Station without being viewed by the surveillance plane’s pilot or the city. The recorded footage will not be stored in the aircraft, according to a statement by the city.

Privacy Concerns

Despite the security measures the city said it would take to keep the video footage accessible only to the sheriff’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California had a number of unanswered questions about the program.

Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said privacy issues remain a “huge concern” and the organization sent a public records request on Monday, Nov. 7, to Lancaster and Los Angeles County for the details behind the aerial surveillance program.

“People who have done nothing wrong shouldn’t have the details of everything they do in their yards and homes open to video surveillance from the skies,” Bibring said. “This kind of sophisticated aerial technology poses a significant risk to the privacy of the residents of Lancaster, and it’s also unclear why it’s a better crime-fighting tool than less invasive and less expensive options the police already use.”

Bibring went on to say that while the California Public Records Act exempts law enforcement investigation materials from disclosure if the program’s video footage is random daily surveillance. It’s unclear whether such random footage will also be exempt from public records requests.

“The fact that [the video footage] is going directly to law enforcement doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be shared with other agencies,” Bibring added. “The program raises all sorts of questions.”

Parris disagreed with Bibring’s assessment of the situation. Parris said the public can’t request data from the city if the city doesn’t have any access to the data. So in this case — since the Lancaster Sheriff’s Station will control the data — there shouldn’t be any California Public Records Act issues when it comes to the availability of the video footage.

Additionally the Lancaster mayor maintained that while the video is surveillance data, it will be treated as evidential and, therefore, protected.

“City personnel and non-parties to a criminal case do not have any rights or privileges for accessing the data transmitted by LEAPS to the Sheriff’s archives,” Parris explained.

Financial Details

As per the agreement between Lancaster and Aero View, the vendor would operate the plane and provide approximately 10 hours of aerial surveillance per day, at times determined by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Lancaster will pay Aero View $89,991 per month for the service. The plane and LEAPS will be housed at Fox Field in Lancaster.

The equipment — plane included — would be bought by the city at a one-time cost of $1.3 million. The program will also not require any operation funding in fiscal year 2011-2012, as the first 12 months of using LEAPS will be at no cost as part of the Acquisition and Management Agreement between Lancaster and Aero View.

According to the agreement, the first LEAPS model will be deployed in the city by spring 2012.

Editor's note: This article has been updated.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.