The Los Angeles Police Department has installed new recording technology on its helicopters that allows it to store video. Previously, the equipment could only send live feeds to officers on the ground.
(TNS) — The Los Angeles Police Department has added equipment and will begin recording helicopter footage of large-scale events as soon as Tuesday, Nov. 3 — just in time for Election Day and its aftermath when protests and political unrest could again break out.
"It's going to be available starting (Tuesday)," LAPD Assistant Chief Horace Frank said of a pair of recording devices that can capture and store live feeds from some of the department's helicopters. "We're testing it now."
In a letter to the Los Angeles Police Commission, LAPD commanders said the department needed the equipment so it could for the first time record its helicopters' live feeds and preserve the footage.
The recording equipment, including two massive hard drives to store the footage, was valued at $2,150 and provided to the department by the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a nonprofit that over the years has gifted LAPD with millions of dollars in new technology.
The Police Commission signed off on the donation in a unanimous Oct. 27 vote. In that meeting, Deputy Chief Peter Zarcone told commissioners some in LAPD's helicopter fleet are equipped with cameras that send live feeds back to department computers so commanders on the ground can look at what's happening.
He said with the donation, 10 LAPD helicopters — more than half of its fleet — could be outfitted with the ability to record footage.
The helicopter live feeds were used in "the recent riots or a Dodger or Laker celebration, or what have you," Zarcone said.
"So when I hear them two or three times a day going above," Commissioner Dale Bonner asked about LAPD's helicopters that regularly buzz around the city, "how do I know that somebody's not just sending images of my yard, not just capturing images?"
Zarcone said the helicopters do not turn on their live feeds for regular patrols. During an event when a helicopter with a live camera is requested, officials can only start recording when signed off by a captain supervising the response.
Frank said LAPD would only approve turning on the cameras and recording an event if there's "an escalation of criminal activity."
He pointed to the widespread protests in May and June, when burglary crews took advantage of the chaos and smashed into nearby stores.
"When we had looting going on at the Grove, that would've been a perfect use of this," Frank said. "At the time, we didn't have the equipment to record everything that was going on."
Frank said the footage could be used to investigate crimes.
Civil rights activist and protesters have said for years they were worried that LAPD and other law enforcement agencies would use footage from drones and helicopters to spy on them and criminalize legitimate protests.
In early October, activists in San Francisco sued that city's Police Department claiming officials were watching them through hundreds of private surveillance cameras.
Citing fears of widespread surveillance, activists in Los Angeles for years stymied efforts by the department to get drones mounted with cameras, The Police Commission approved LAPD's drones last year.
LAPD and other law enforcement agencies around the region already use similar footage — from surveillance cameras, social media, and broadcast-news video — to track down and arrest suspected looters they said descended on areas where protests were happening.
In Long Beach, the Police Department in part of a regional task force that has made 34 such arrests.
Zarcone said the helicopter footage — like video from officers' body-worn and and in-car cameras — would be kept indefinitely.
Frank noted that the footage could also be used in ongoing LAPD reviews of violent tactics deployed by its officers during any protest.
"I would imagine so," Frank said of recording footage of police uses-of-force. "That could be very helpful."
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