Miami-Dade County

Police surveillance would target Northside from the sky

What aerial surveillance looks like

A video uploaded by Persistent Surveillance Systems shows what the "Hawkeye II" system looks like in a demo video.
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A video uploaded by Persistent Surveillance Systems shows what the "Hawkeye II" system looks like in a demo video.

One of the most dangerous areas in Miami-Dade, the Northside district between Miami and Miami Gardens, may be photographed from the air in an effort to recreate 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. The county has applied for a federal grant to test the surveillance for a year.

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.

At this point, anything that’s going to help get the killings down, I’m going to support.

Anti-violence advocate Tangela Sears

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. The county plans a one-year test with flights over the Northside area, according to the summary. Florida International University would help Miami-Dade analyze the footage, according to the county’s federal grant application.

The application describes a goal of 100 to 150 hours of surveillance every month, with one or two five-hour flights per day. But for the actual test funded by the grant dollars, a plane would fly about 10 hours a week over the Northside area for roughly one year.

Analysts on the ground would help track the information and guide the plane. After that, the footage would be used to track not just suspects, but “who they met with, where they came from and where they went” one or two weeks before the actual event.

Wide-area surveillance “helps not only identify a criminal,” according to the grant application, “but criminal networks.”

While Miami-Dade police emphasize that 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’s grant application.Heyman was not available for comment.

Miami-Dade police submitted grant applications to the Justice Department, and they included a grim summary of life in the Northside area.

“In this neighborhood, families rooted in the community for decades wake up to increasing crime and violence,” the grant application read. “There are multiple shootings every week. The fabric of the community is eroding.”

The application also describes a tight budget in a county that hasn’t raised its main property tax rates since a 12 percent cut in 2011, and an unwillingness by some residents to cooperate with investigators.

“The increase in these crimes stems from limited police resources to address specific resources and the overall state of the nation in regards to the perceptions of law enforcement,” the application reads.

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.

The Public Safety and Health Committee will hold a public hearing on the application Wednesday. It was initially scheduled to go before the full commission, but Heyman pulled the item from the 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 the mayor for the legal justification of the program.

If we have any shred of privacy left in this country, it has to ban police from taking pictures in backyards.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida

The summary of the program lays out some details about Miami-Dade’s proposed 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 actual surveillance area during the test would include communities surrounding Northside, and the summary said the program would include coordination with police in both Miami and Miami Gardens.

“The coverage location was selected through identification of precipitous increases in crime in the Northside District,” the document said. 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.

Alvaro Zabaleta, a Miami-Dade detective and police spokesman, said the agency hasn’t settled on a firm area for focusing the surveillance. “We don’t even know if we’re going to get the grant yet,” he said.

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.”

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