Leaked Emails Show Chicago PD Bought, Deployed Drones Using Off-The-Books Forfeiture Funds
from the forced-transparency-still-more-effective-than-voluntary-transparency dept
Thanks to the efforts of transparency activists Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoS), residents of Chicago are learning more about the activities of their sworn protectors, the Chicago Police Department. Stuff the PD never wanted the public to see is now in the public’s hands. The Chicago Sun Times has started digging into the stash provided by DDoS and has revealed the PD’s secret drone program, paid for with off-the-books funds.
Details of the police department’s drone program were included in an email sent last summer by Karen Conway, director of police research and development. In the email, Conway told other high-ranking police officials that the department’s counter-terrorism bureau “utilized 1505 funds for a pilot Drone program that operates within the parameters of current laws.”
1505 funds are funds the city doesn’t control or track. The funds belong solely to the Police Department — something that happens shortly after the PD takes the funds from the people they used to belong to.
The department’s “1505” fund is made up of forfeiture proceeds — money and other assets seized in connection to criminal investigations. The money isn’t included in the department’s official budget and has reportedly been used in the past to purchase other controversial technology, like Stingrays, which mimic cell towers and send out signals to trick phones into transmitting their locations and other information.
Asset forfeiture is a great way to get cops the things they want without having to worry about oversight from either the city or its residents. Purchases are almost always “controversial” when they’re made with funds that are all but invisible to outsiders.
And there’s quite a bit of cash to be spent. The Chicago PD has taken in nearly $26 million in forfeiture funds in the last two years alone. It managed to spend nearly $8 million over that same period, some of it on “operating expenses,” witness protection, and controlled drug buys. Some of that also went towards training programs and conferences, as well as their attendant expenses (travel, meals, lodging).
But some of it went towards new tech not specifically approved by the city. Emails included in the leaked documents suggest the PD wants its drones to participate in vehicle pursuits. One email references “Starchase” and “engine stop technology.” This would allow pursuit vehicles to launch GPS trackers at pursued vehicles, allowing officers to stop chasing and start tracking. Drones would presumably be used to track vehicles from the air and put airborne eyes on suspects if and when the tracked vehicle is abandoned.
The only hang up appears to be the city’s drone policies, which restrict how they can be used. The PD has obtained some waivers and relaxation of drone guidelines, but it appears this part of the program is still in the exploratory phase rather than in actual use at this time. However, other emails in the same stash claim the drones will be (or are being) used to search for missing persons, take crime scene photos, or assist in “terrorist-related issues.”
But this isn’t the only time the Chicago PD has expressed interest in airborne surveillance. While this email references vehicle pursuits (something the PD doesn’t handle particularly well), there’s no reason to believe the PD won’t find other uses for the new eyes in the sky.
In 2018, the ACLU accused former Mayor Rahm Emanuel of being the heavy hand behind legislation in Springfield that would have allowed police officers to use drones equipped with facial recognition technology to monitor protests. Versions of the legislation passed both the state house and senate but a final bill was never signed into law.
“Given that the city not so long ago sought legislation to permit using drones to surveil public gatherings, including those engaged in First Amendment activity, it is worth questioning its motivations,” [ACLU spokesman Ed] Yohnka said of the new revelation.
The CPD may be looking at pursuit options but state law enforcement has its own drones and sent them skyward during protests last year sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin. The Illinois State Police said the drones were launched to capture footage of “potential uses of force and arrests,” but the same recordings could easily have been used to identify and track people engaged in protected First Amendment activity.
This is just one of many problems with asset forfeiture programs. Not only does the government take control of citizens’ property with almost no justification, but the direct beneficiaries of these programs are often allowed to spend the funds however they want with almost no oversight. That’s how the Chicago PD gets into the drone business without ruffling feathers downtown or feeling any obligation to inform the public about their latest surveillance plans.