The Dayton City Commission is considering a contract with a company that provides aerial surveillance for the city to monitor crime. It’s created controversy with civil rights groups and local citizens who say this is potential violation of privacy. Emily McCord speaks to Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl about the technology and its implications.
Emily McCord: What exactly is this aerial surveillance technology?
Richard Biehl: It is an enhanced video imagery that can be captured in the air. The flight level is about 8,900 [feet]. This is camera imagery attached to a Cessna plane. It is piloted. Basically, about a 25 square mile area can be monitored all at one time. The imagery is downlinked to computer software that if a crime even occurs, we can identify an individual or vehicle at that scene. They can be tagged electronically and tracked through computer software so we can not only where they come from but where they went to after leaving the crime scene.
EM: So, how’s this going to work? Is there going to be a robbery and you get a call and say ‘dispatch the planes’? Is that what happens?
RB: No, actually, what we’re going to do is identify crime patterns because this is expensive technology. It is labor intensive in terms of personnel to do forensic analysis based on imagery to follow up on crime events. So, we will identify crime pattern that are already in existence and then basically fly the plane at times that we think additional crimes are going to occur in the hope to be able to capture these events and then use this video imagery and computer tracking to follow suspects and vehicles to a place where their identification can be determined through some secondary means, through another ground sensor meaning another camera on the ground and/or witnesses that are identified on the ground, or actually to have a police officer to respond to the location that we know where the suspect went.
EM: You’re talking about a lot of analysis and an expensive piece of technology. Are you just hoping to get lucky to catch a crime there?
RB: No, actually, it’s because of using pattern analysis we hope not to be lucky, we hope to be very focused and strategic in its use. So, we’re going to deploy it at times we have every reason to believe another event will occur. To just fly and hope you’ll be lucky would be extremely costly and very ineffective.
EM: Now, is this going to be surveillance 24 hours a day, all the time?
RB: Actually, that’s a great question because that’s been, you know, ‘I don’t want be watched, someone to watch me around the clock’. This is 120 hours over 3 months and it’s not 120 hour continuous. The flights are roughly four hours before the plane has to refuel. So, four-hour increments strategically determined based on pattern analysis over a series of days, weeks or months.
EM: What is to say, though, that this technology won’t be used for other reasons that are outside of crime?
RB: See, I’ve heard that question before. First of all, I go back, crime is our focus here. We have no interest in monitoring what citizens are doing in normal activity. We have no interest. We have no intent to do that. And I would say if that intent did exist, you don’t this technology to do it. That’s the other part of this. If this technology would provide a capability that wouldn’t exist just by deploying current resources to do the very same thing…So, those who think ‘this technology, if this doesn’t go through, no one can ever monitor what I’m doing’. No, if police really wanted to do that it could be done with current resources. So, the argument that having the technology not available would prevent that from occurring is really a false argument.
EM: Not exactly a comforting thought there…
RB: But that’s the reality of it, right? The greatest thing about this country is because of transparency of government. Everything we do is a matter of public record for the most part subject to public disclosure. Now, not a current active investigation. That’s protected as a public record because that can thwart getting to the truth and accomplishing justice. But everything government does, at least in Ohio because of the public records law, is subject disclosure to citizens at any time for any reasons without even a written request. That’s the transparency of government. That’s the protection.
EM: So, after something happens, the public will have access to see how this technology was used?
RB: Anyone. It doesn’t have to be someone who was a civil libertarian or a civil rights advocate saying I want access. Any citizen could walk in and say ‘I want to see’. Now, the computer, uh, even including the analysis once a criminal case is conducted. Oh, by the way, any information acquired if it’s part of a prosecution, criminal case, that’s subject [to] all the legal safeguards in our legal system. So, if it is believed to be obtained illegally, that can be challenged in court. So, there are checks and balances in place to really prevent any of this being used improperly. First and foremost, I’ll say it’s the integrity of the men and women of the Dayton Police department.
EM: Are there any other safeguards in place besides the after the fact public record that can assure the public that this isn’t used in an unintended way?
RB: Obviously, what we’ll be looking at is the retention period. Right now, the draft policy has a 45 day only because other video imagery is captured for that period of time. I would like it to be for a lesser period of time. I don’t know exactly which. I think probably 30 days is perhaps more reasonable. Retention period with automatic purging of data would be one of those protections. An audit trail of any analysis that’s done…anyone accessing the files, so that information could be sent to commanders so we could monitor anyone [who] accesses this information for any kind of forensic analysis or investigation. So they’re other administrative processing put in place to enhance safeguard to ensure that it’s not being used improperly.
EM: You say this technology can look at 25 miles all at once. That’s a lot of people that are perhaps being recorded and they don’t know it at the time. They don’t have anything to worry about? Is that what you’re saying?
RB: I think the disconnect here is the belief that it’s “me” that you’re watching. We don’t know who it is without secondary verification on the ground. So, there is no way of telling the who, the race, gender, ethnicity, identity of an individual. There’s no way to tell make, model, license plate of a vehicle. All that has to be followed up with some sort of verification on the ground.
EM: But technology inevitably does get better. What if, down the road, you don’t need to do that secondary verification?
RB: Yeah, that was one of the questions…, and I’m not an expert in this technology, but Larrell Walters from IDCAST who does expertise in there, says this is going to be the upper end of limitation of this current technology. So, while there may be other technology out there that could improve I guess the quality of video imagery, it isn’t this technology and I’ve got a feeling if it’s out there, it costs an enormous amount of money. So, I’m sure if it exists then it’ll be cost prohibitive. Even this is a costly technology which is why it has to be used in such a very focused, strategic way. Otherwise, we’re spending a lot of money with no benefit.