By Angel Jennings, Richard Winton and James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — To the 96,000 residents of Compton, the little Cessna would have looked like scores of other small planes that flew over the city each day.
But anyone paying close attention might have noticed the single-engine craft kept circling the city in a continuous loop. What they could not have known was that it packed unusual cargo — a bank of a dozen wide-angle industrial imaging cameras. They recorded low-resolution images of every corner of the 10.1-square-mile city.
For nine days in early 2012, the small plane beamed the images to the local Sheriff’s Department station, where deputies observed fender benders, necklace snatchings and a shooting.
The test was part of a larger effort by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to use aerial surveillance for crime-fighting in the sprawling collection of communities it patrols. Around the same time, the sheriff was launching a similar aircraft observation program 80 miles north in the desert city of Lancaster.
But while Lancaster’s effort was publicized and debated at City Council meetings, the Sheriff’s Department didn’t notify either Compton residents or elected leaders about the test in that city.
And that has left some bad feelings in Compton.
“There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily,” Compton Mayor Aja Brown said Wednesday. “We want to assure the peace of mind of our citizens.”
After learning this week of the surveillance pilot program, Brown proposed a “citizen privacy protection policy,” to require public notification the next time authorities deploy monitoring equipment.
Revelations about the video monitoring of Compton provoked complaints by civil libertarians as well as doubts from a technologist about whether the video images were intrusive enough to truly thwart crime.
The discussion comes at a time of increasing debate about the powers and pitfalls of techno-surveillance, which can be used to observe citizens from afar, to identify individuals based on their unique facial characteristics and to keep samples of a citizen’s unique biology via their DNA.
The Compton surveillance program had gone mostly unknown until the Center for Investigative Reporting, a Berkeley-based journalism nonprofit, reported earlier this month that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had used the high-powered cameras to watch over Compton. The city contracts with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for police services.
Sheriff’s officials flirted with the surveillance after being approached by a representative of Persistent Surveillance Systems, a Dayton, Ohio-based firm that supplies planes and cameras to law enforcement agencies.
Company President Ross T. McNutt said he met with officials from both the sheriff’s Compton station and headquarters to try to sell them on his Hawkeye II system, which he said provided sweeping images equivalent to what would come from 800 video cameras.
McNutt said the company’s Cessna flew at 10,000 feet in a loop about four miles wide, with the cameras storing images from around the city, while beaming them to the sheriff’s Compton office and air headquarters in Long Beach. Only images tied to known crime scenes received close scrutiny, McNutt said.
“We start from reported crime scenes. That is the only way we get involved,” McNutt said. “So, if there is a home invasion robbery or a homicide, we look for people who are fleeing. Often, we can catch up to them in real time. We can find a house they fled to or a house they came from in the first place.”
The cameras, despite a total 192 million pixels of resolution, sweep such a wide area that each individual appears as a single pixel — not nearly discerning enough to detect race, sex or other distinguishing characteristics, McNutt said. Those attributes and the focus only on known crime scenes should alleviate concerns about privacy violations, he said.
But Peter Bibring, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the lack of public notice and the far-flung nature of the videotaping troubled him. “So the sheriffs were surveilling the entire city,” he said, “in the hope of catching very few.”
Residents of a city renowned for its history of crime expressed mixed emotions when told about the video flyovers.