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Lancaster's daily aerial surveillance flights raise privacy fears

August 25, 2012 |  9:02 am

Lancaster aerial camera

Lancaster this week embarked on what experts say is a first-of-its-kind aerial surveillance over the city, using a small Cessna plane.

The plane, equipped with sophisticated video equipment, is set fly a loop above the city for up to 10 hours a day, beaming a live video feed of what's going on below to a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department dispatch center.

The camera will inevitably pick up scenes of mundane day-to-day life. Officials said they planned to use the video only to track reports of crimes in progress, traffic collisions and other emergency situations.

About a few hours into its maiden flight Friday, the plane's video feed captured its first incident: a motorcycle rider who had crashed at 20th Street East and Avenue K. Using the video, deputies in the dispatch center were able to help paramedics assess the situation before they got to the scene. Later, the department got word that a group fight was brewing at Eastside High School. The plane moved into position and conducted surveillance above the campus. No fight occurred.

It has become common for law enforcement agencies to use aerial surveillance, including streaming video, during breaking crime situations. Some are even beginning to use drones for police work.

But Lancaster appears to be the first city where a camera will send video continuously to the ground, to be used as an integral part of daily policing.

For years, Lancaster officials have been exploring better ways to patrol the far-flung city. Mayor R. Rex Parris said he talked about various ideas, including drones, with aviation pioneer Dick Rutan and eventually settled on the concept the city is now putting into operation.

The city spent $1.3 million on the initial contract with Aero View, the Lancaster-based company that developed the program and will operate the planes. Beginning in a year, the city will pay about $90,000 a month for the service. Eventually, Parris said he hoped to add a second plane for greater coverage, and Aero View President Steve McCarter said the technology could be expanded to feed the video footage directly to deputies' patrol cars.

"This will allow us within five seconds of a call to get some eyes on location. If some robber is fleeing deputies, we get to learn where, thanks to this technology," Parris said. "In law enforcement, for a long time it has been known that it is a deterrent if a criminal believes there is a strong likelihood of apprehension."

When the plane is in the air, it will record every incident deputies respond to, Sheriff's Capt. Robert Jonsen said.

The plane's pilot, an Aero View employee, does not see the encrypted video feed. A watch deputy in the dispatch center guides the camera, and images can be viewed only with a special access code.

"We are very aware of privacy issues," Jonsen said, adding the videos will be stored for two years. "The protocol requires that the system be only used to monitor criminal activity."

Despite officials' assurances, the American Civil Liberties Union requested detailed records on the program last November, when the city approved the contract.

Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said the organization had reviewed sample footage, which allayed some of their fears, but not all.

"As far as we can tell, the system isn't capable of seeing in any greater detail than your average pilot or helicopter pilot," Bibring said.

Had the system been capable of facial recognition, it would have presented more serious apprehension, he said. But Bibring said the ACLU was still concerned about infrared sensors and the potential to monitor and store data on people who are not suspected of a crime.

-- Abby Sewell and Richard Winton

Photo: A pilot flies over Lancaster in a Cessna equipped with a surveillance system. The city appears to be the first to have a camera sending video continuously to the ground, to be used as an integral part of daily policing. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times