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Lancaster OKs aerial surveillance of city

A piloted plane with high-tech optical equipment will record movements of people on the ground 10 hours a day. Officials see a crime-fighting aid but some worry that specific people may be targeted.

November 11, 2011|By Ann M. Simmons, Los Angeles Times

Opponents say a plan to use aerial surveillance to monitor neighborhoods in Lancaster raises the potential for government-sanctioned snooping.

But city leaders insist the new initiative will be used strictly to fight crime.

The aerial surveillance program, slated to begin by May, will involve a piloted Cessna 172 fixed-wing aircraft with high-tech optical equipment that will record the movements of people on the ground. The plane will circle the Antelope Valley city at altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000 feet some 10 hours a day.

The technology, developed by the Lancaster-based Spiral Technology, Inc., includes the use of infrared imaging. It will record video footage that will be transmitted to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The camera could spot a home invasion robbery or track unsuspecting criminals. It could note car accidents so patrol cars could get there more quickly, according to local city and law enforcement officials. They contend that it will improve response times.

But opponents of the program cry foul. They object to the plane constantly hovering overhead when there isn't a crime in progress, and worry that the camera might record images other than crime scenes.

"People who have done nothing wrong shouldn't have anything they do in their yards or homes subject to video surveillance from the sky," said Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "To the extent that it involves observing things which a typical pilot overhead might not be able to see, it raises serious constitutional questions."

The ACLU has filed a California public records request to get further details about the program. The group wants specific information such as the capability of the cameras, how long the video will be kept and whether images gathered by the Sheriff's Department will be public record, Bibring said.

The program is expected to cost $1.3 million to launch. Financing will come from existing funds in the fiscal year budget, city officials said. The charge for surveillance is expected to run around $300 an hour, or about $90,000 a month. The aircraft will be fueled and maintained at a Lancaster airfield.

Local law enforcement officials had lobbied for the system and hailed the new technology as a way to bolster the Sheriff's Department's surveillance, patrol and investigative capabilities.

The primary value is the ability "to see what's going on at the scene of a crime almost instantaneously," said Capt. Bob Jonsen of the Lancaster sheriff's station.

The pilot will circle the general area. When a 911 call comes in, the location will be relayed to the aircraft, which will fly to the scene and begin recording, Jonsen said.

Sheriff's helicopters using similar surveillance technology are already used all over Los Angeles County, Jonsen said. But they weren't always readily available to respond to calls in faraway Lancaster. Lancaster's "eye in the sky" will be operational seven days a week, Jonsen said.

A similar proposal went down to defeat in Lancaster two years ago, but on Tuesday the City Council unanimously approved a new, retooled version of the program.

"It's our goal to become the safest city in America," Mayor R. Rex Parris said in an interview Thursday. "But we have some unique challenges to overcome first for that to happen."

Some residents aren't convinced that Lancaster's crime problem warrants such measures, however. According to sheriff's data, the city's crime rate by year's end is expected to show a 40% decline since 2007.

ACLU officials say they have received complaints about the new surveillance program from a group of concerned local residents.

"I think we have a privacy problem, and I think the city is going to have a lot of lawsuits," longtime Lancaster resident Ed Galinda told the City Council on Tuesday.

Residents Danelda Robbins and Lyndey Williams expressed concern that sheriff's officials harboring personal vendettas might direct the plane's pilot to focus on specific neighborhoods and target particular people.

City officials insisted that such concerns were unwarranted. The imagery recorded by the system will be encrypted and fed directly to the sheriff's station, and will not be viewed by the pilot or city workers, according to Jonsen. Designated deputies will be the only personnel allowed to see the recordings.

The plan has drawn applause from some Lancaster residents. "It's just another tool to send a strong message to those who would think about committing crimes against people and property in our community," said resident Mark Pierson. He and other supporters were pleased the city was finally getting its "spy plane."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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