Police Surveillance Would Target Florida Neighborhoods from the Sky

A plane flying 25,000 feet above can photograph more than 20 square miles at a time, then zoom in on a place and time to track participants in the minutes leading up to an incident, or the getaway after.

by Douglas Hanks, Miami Herald / June 9, 2017

(TNS) — One of the most dangerous areas in Miami-Dade, the Northside district between Miami and Miami Gardens, would be photographed from the air for 10 hours a week in an effort to re-create crime scenes moment by moment.

The proposed “wide-area surveillance” program would put Miami-Dade on the leading edge of the controversial use of war-time technology to photograph large areas of a city and then use the footage to track down suspects after a crime occurs.

Wide-area surveillance “is expected to help lower the crime rate through increased case closures and convictions that will reduce crime in a community through removing high rate offenders,” according to a county summary of the program, “and providing a greater deterrence effect by increasing the perceived certainty of getting caught.”

A plane flying 25,000 feet above can photograph more than 20 square miles at a time, then zoom in on a place and time to track participants in the minutes leading up to an incident, or the getaway after.

The rewind feature let the U.S. military track saboteurs in Iraq by capturing a roadside blast, then inching the footage back until it spotted a vehicle that had stopped on the location to plant the explosive. Military analysts then could follow that vehicle through the past, checking each stop it made before the explosion and each one it made after.

In Miami-Dade, it would mean surveillance for everyone outside and within the airborne cameras’ 25-square-mile field of vision. And while Miami-Dade police emphasize the images are too blurry to reveal people’s identities — or even their genders —the specter of a government eye-in-the-sky has privacy advocates alarmed.

“If we have any shred of privacy left in this country, it has to ban police from taking pictures in backyards,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Simon said he obtained the two-page document from the office of Sally Heyman, the Miami-Dade commissioner sponsoring the county police department applying for federal aid to run the one-year test program. Heyman was not available for comment.

A police spokesman said the agency wants $1.2 million in grants to fund the test. Juan Perez, the county’s police chief, said the County Commission would still need to give the go-ahead to put a plane in the sky even if the Justice Department awards Miami-Dade the grant money.

“We are a long way from that,” he said.

Wednesday’s hearing before the Public Safety and Health Committee was called after Heyman pulled the item from the full commission’s agenda, where it was up for a final vote. The ACLU sent commissioners a letter in protest of the surveillance grant, which Mayor Carlos Gimenez asked the board to approve in a recent memo. Simon is urging commissioners to press the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez for the legal justification of the program.

The document lays out some details about Miami-Dade’s proposed test of the surveillance. The agency plans a 12-month evaluation period in the Northside area. The document doesn’t lay out specific boundaries for the test, but Miami-Dade’s Northside police district stretches from Northwest 135th Street to Northwest 20th Street in Miami.

“The coverage location was selected through identification of precipitous increases in crime in the Northside District,” the document said. Miami-Dade would work with police in Miami Gardens and Miami to implement the surveillance program. Police plan to film roughly 10 hours a week, and then evaluate if a year’s worth of surveillance helps bring down the crime rate or boost case closures.

Tangela Sears, an anti-violence activist in the Northside area, said she welcomes the effort to bring more police surveillance to the area.

“At this point, anything that’s going to help get the killings down, I’m going to support,” she said. In the Northside, “you can be going to the store and not make it home. You could be going to the gas station, and not make it home.”

©2017 Miami Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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