Helicopter Footage Obtained By The ACLU Shows Pervasive Surveillance Of Peaceful Anti-Police Violence Protests

from the because-of-course-it-does dept

Thanks to a trove of public records, the ACLU can provide some insight on how the California Highway Patrol engaged in surveillance of anti-police brutality protests. While one would expect police helicopters to fly over protests to keep an eye out for any illegal activity, it appears the officers manning the surveillance cameras were more interested in trying to identify protesters who weren’t breaking any laws.

Some lowlights of the aerial footage can be seen in this video produced by the ACLU:

Here’s how the ACLU describes what it observed in the recordings liberated from from the CHP:

In Sacramento, CHP closely zooms in on a protester as they sit alone on a fountain next to a Black Lives Matter poster. An hour later, when people peacefully assemble in front of the fountain to hear an organizer speak, CHP continues to hover and record, zooming in closely on people’s faces and signs.  

In Placerville, CHP captures detailed footage of several dozen protesters peacefully assembled in front of the El Dorado County courthouse. The video captures an organizer thanking and hugging participants as they hold up signs. CHP also recorded a Riverside County courthouse protest described as a “vigil… so quiet that the loudest sound was helicopters overhead.” In the CHP recordings, police cameras zoom in on faces and linger over people speaking at vigils, handing out water, making signs, participating in die-ins, and even dancing.

This is the Press-Enterprise’s recounting of the peaceful protest in Riverside not-so-quietly observed by CHP helicopters:

The demonstration ended peacefully in the mid-afternoon, after protesters took a symbolic nine-minute knee in front of the Riverside Historic Courthouse. The vigil was so quiet that the loudest sound was helicopters overhead.

Then they returned to the park and dispersed, with some demonstrators cleaning up the streets as they went.

There were no arrests. “Very peaceful. No issues reported,” Riverside Police spokesman Officer Ryan Railsback said.

But despite there being no signs of criminal activity, the helicopters continued to circle the protest while camera operators zoomed in on faces for reasons that went undocumented in the reports obtained by the ACLU. That lack of information implies the apparent attempts to photograph or identify protesters fell outside the stated purpose of the surveillance and was deliberately left out of CHP reports.

That’s not the only troubling aspect of the CHP surveillance footage. It also appears the CHP took particular interest in anti-police protests, allowing other large protests to go unobserved by its eyes in the sky.

We asked CHP whether it had any surveillance footage of other protests last year, including those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shelter-in-place orders. But in hour after hour of footage provided by CHP, what we saw were protests against police violence, not protests of pandemic policy.

There are several reasons a law enforcement agency might find anti-police brutality protests more “worthy” of extended surveillance than other protests over other issues. Very few of those reasons are excusable. At best, it would be safe to assume that anti-police protests are more volatile because they historically have been. But when no criminal activity is observed, the CHP should maintain its distance. When it’s clear it’s a peaceful protest, the CHP has no business targeting individual protesters.

The rest of the reasons suck. The CHP targeted the protests because the protests targeted law enforcement. A majority of protesters in these protests (as compared to COVID-related protests) were persons of color. The eyes in the sky weren’t so much about keeping the peace as reminding protesters law enforcement is omnipresent and its eyes can be pretty much anywhere at all times. Circling over peaceful protests with police helicopters is a form of intimidation. Destroying a nine-minute silent tribute to a black man killed by a white cop with whirling rotors and engine noise is a feature, not a bug, of this form of surveillance.

This implicit ugliness will, of course, be denied by law enforcement officials. Just like they’ve denied all sorts of evidence of biased policing pretty much since the inception of their respective law enforcement agencies. But everyone can see it’s still there. The footage obtained here says what police officials are unwilling to confront: that cops go after minorities whenever possible and still feel very comfortable singling them out for whatever form of surveillance they happen to have on hand.

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Comments on “Helicopter Footage Obtained By The ACLU Shows Pervasive Surveillance Of Peaceful Anti-Police Violence Protests”

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43 Comments
Dan (profile) says:

we can't have our cake and eat it too

I do see the point in complaining about this, but we can’t have our cake and eat it too. There has been numerous court instances of it being clarified that the people have the right to film police in public spaces. I draw the line at public surveillance cameras, but if they want to put actual bodies in the air, as human individuals they can make the same argument we have. I don’t like it, but I see more value to be gained in the public retaining the right to film cops then disallowing it for both sides. If they didn’t do this, they would have officers on the ground. More then are in those ‘copters. Keeping both apart unless necessary, may be the better option right now.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Rocky says:

Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

"Both sides"? There is no both sides to this.

The government should never engage in spurious surveillance, there’s a reason why in most instances a government entity need to talk to a judge or get a court order to engage in any kind of surveillance because otherwise it can have chilling effect on people exercising their rights. In this case the police where trying to identify people who hadn’t committed any crimes and who where exercising their rights, why do you think that is?

Government officers on the other hand, are servants of the public and as such they should always be under scrutiny.

Implying that the public can loose their right to record what the police are doing in a public setting is also implying that the Constitution is just a piece of paper that doesn’t matter. There are certainly forces that would love for that to happen, especially those who don’t want to be scrutinized.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

"The government should never engage in spurious surveillance…"

Shoulda, woulda, coulda… They don’t need a warrant for general public surveillance of this type. They watch us, we watch them. We’re finally making some headway in exposing bad policing by observing them personally in public without repercussion and you want to endanger that liberty by saying they can’t. Bad call…

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

It’s actually your suggestion that endangers liberty, that it’s a form of quid pro quo. It isn’t and allowing the police to expand their powers through mission creep because we don’t speak up against it means less liberty for all.

Also, I never said that they can’t – I said they shouldn’t engage in spurious surveillance and last I checked that’s two different words with different meanings so don’t try to put words in my mouth.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 we can't have our cake and eat it too

I have to agree with Dan here.
The very protections that all me to use my car cameras are the one that let police run film from a helicopter.
Limited expectation of privacy in public.

It’s not a hill to die on. The benefits to the general public in the status quo far outweigh any concerns of ‘privacy’.

And as noted. They were up there, not on the street. Separating here is a good thing to keep peace and order.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:3 we can't have our cake and eat it too

If they just where monitoring in general I wouldn’t quibble about it, but in this instance they actually focused on a select few people.

See my post below about the Katz vs United States case and why what the police did can be construed as an attack on the 4th amendment.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 we can't have our cake and eat it too

I’m not sure how that accurately applies. In Katz we have someone inside.
A phone booth is an enclosed structure and therefore represents an implied privacy with the door closed.
The listening device applied outside was recording inside.

Here we have people clearly in a public space (the open ground) being recorded in a public space (the air).
This would be no different than a news camera hovering above. Zooming in and out and scanning closely or not.

My cell phone has better and more stable recording than most old police video systems. If I were to stand on top of the building and record a public square I’d also be within my rights arguably.

We can’t expect to hold them from filming as we demand that right.

Bloof (profile) says:

Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

They’re not there serving as private individuals, they’re not paying for the copter from their own wallets in their free time, they’re doing it as part of a publicly funded organisation so may as well be public surveillance cameras, an organisation whose trustworthiness when it comes to collection and retention of footage and data, selective prosecutions and policing of certain groups is questionable at best… See the policing of far right groups, covid protests and so on.

The protesters weren’t breaking any laws, there was no indication it was going to happen, and it didn’t, the sole reason they put the chopper in the air was to identify and intimidate critics, not the first time they’ve done that, won’t be the last.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

Katz v. United States:

Question:
Does the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures require the police to obtain a search warrant in order to wiretap a public pay phone?

Conclusion:
7–1 DECISION FOR KATZ
MAJORITY OPINION BY POTTER STEWART

Yes. The Court ruled that Katz was entitled to Fourth Amendment protection for his conversations and that a physical intrusion into the area he occupied was unnecessary to bring the Amendment into play. "The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places," wrote Justice Potter Stewart for the Court. A concurring opinion by John Marshall Harlan introduced the idea of a ‘reasonable’ expectation of Fourth Amendment protection.

Your move.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

I had this exact discussion the other day, only about homicide. "Why didn’t the [bias] media cover this murder?" My reply was, was are any of them even news worthy? (Too many to cover them all.) The point being…bias in the choice, yes because covering them all in impractical/impossible.

To directly answer your question… since Snowden, the Feds are looking at them all. No bias there. At the federal level the 4th Amendment is already dead. And property rights are dead at all levels (Civil Asset Forfeiture). If this is the biggest fish you have to fry, you’re just not paying attention.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: we can't have our cake and eat it too

Uh, no. LEOs have certain fav targets, and ignore or pal around with others. I don’t know what news media has to do with this.

If you are using loads if resources to surveil and intimidate certain parties who aren’t doing anything wrong, and ignore others who may or may not be doing anything wrong, it speaks to an agenda.

In situations where there had been violence or property destruction, the LEOs seem to concentrate their violence on people not at all involved in any crime. It’s pretty clear there’s a problem.

Do you see a generic problem with the 4th Amendment these days? Won’t argue with that.

cliff_badger (profile) says:

I’m honestly a little confused, and know I’ll get flagged into oblivion but here goes…

  • We expect to be able to film the police in public, but get upset if do it to us?

Don’t get me wrong, this shit drives me crazy, and all I can think of is: don’t you have better things to do. I just don’t understand getting upset at these specific actions, beyond being upset at them wasting time and money. To me, it is their follow up actions that are worth of being upset at.

I feel like I am missing something, what is it?

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Rocky says:

Re: Re:

I feel like I am missing something, what is it?

Yes, you are missing something. If the police are constantly watching you, are you sure you would act in the same way as if they weren’t watching? Would everyone?

You should really try to learn a bit of history and how indiscriminate police-surveillance led to other things that where much worse, aka the "follow up actions" you mentioned, the more you allow the more they will take.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"We expect to be able to film the police in public, but get upset if do it to us?"

Why would the public expect privacy from state surveillance when they’re doing nothing wrong, but expect to be able to film public servants in the commission of their duties in a way no more intrusive than the average gas station worker needs to expect during their workday? Truly a mystery.

TaboToka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why would the public expect privacy from state surveillance when they’re doing nothing wrong

Here’s a short (<30 page) paper that will help you understand the flaw this argument:

‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy

A quick excerpt:

By saying “I have nothing to hide,” you are saying that it’s OK for the government to infringe on the rights of potentially millions of your fellow Americans, possibly ruining their lives in the process. To me, the “I have nothing to hide” argument basically equates to “I don’t care what happens, so long as it doesn’t happen to me.”

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I didn’t read the paper you mentioned, but you are correct in the misgivings about the whole, "I’ve got nothing to hide" thing. The thinking is backward, especially when a cop tells you that.

A true criminal has absolutely nothing to lose, except his freedom (aka incarceration). In contrast, someone on the other end of the scale, like a law enforcement officer has everything to lose. Hence, things like his personal address etc. are not public knowledge, out of a matter of necessity (aka. concern of retaliation).

Your average citizen is more toward that higher end of the scale, not the lower. When someone says, "they have nothing to hide", what they actually mean is, "I have nothing to hide from the government". That too is a foolish notion, but it explains things like the decisions we make every day about to whom to provide information about social security numbers, credit cards numbers, etc.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I have no fellow Americans, I’m just a concerned outsider 😉

My point was simply that it’s pretty damn obvious why filming police in the execution of their public duties is different to blanket filming of people doing nothing in particular to be concerned about. Even if US cops didn’t have a long history of violent abuse and zero consequences when video evidence isn’t going to be available (and then, sometimes when it will be), the difference is situation and therefore standard applied is pretty obvious.

As someone originally from the UK, a country that Americans take great pains to tell me is a dystopian hellhole because of all the CCTV cameras, I find it amusing when people suddenly tell me it’s OK when the shoe’s on the other foot.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

We expect to be able to film the police in public, but get upset if do it to us?

There is the use to which the videos are put. The public publish and draw attention to videos showing things like police violence. The police use videos for intrusive surveillance of people regardless of whether they are committing crimes. That is the public’s videos of police can only affect the police if they are behaving in an illegal fashion, while the police’s video of the public can be used to put someone on a target list simply because they were filmed associating with someone else, or stopped their car in a red light district to answer the phone.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think the real question here is, "what does someone need to see in the performance of their jobs?". This is true in any profession. We all have people who come into our own homes to provide services and give private information to others for the same reason.

In the case of law enforcement, would we want them to be more proactive or reactive? We could have the utmost in privacy if police stayed at the station and only made an appearance when called. They would be dealing with crime instead of preventing it. A speedster can then get away with it until he causes a fatality and then pays the price. A sad consolation to those others involved.

There is a line to be drawn here, and there are benefits and pitfalls, where ever that is. There have been case studies that have proven that increased patrolling does not impact crime as much as one would think, but the increased presence does give the perception of less safety. (Look it up.)

I’m not making an argument that we need more or less. (I think less.) But, we all need to decide how much is too much and live with the benefits/consequences, regardless. This case provides just the discussion needed. Congratulations to all of you for the good comments on this.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
TaboToka (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I just don’t understand getting upset at these specific actions,

It is because IT IS NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS.

If folks are not breaking the law, the cops need to leave them the frik alone. They do not have the right to pre-crime them, to harrass them, to record them, or to do anything else except uphold the law.

If they are unable to stay in their lane then a) they have too much $$$ and need their budgets reduced to a level consistent with carrying out their purpose and nothing more, and/or b) they are rife with bad actors and need some serious bleach and scrubbing.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Correct, there is no expectation of privacy in public for either side.
The real issue is what they do with the footage.
Were the CHP running faces against Clearview?
How can you be sure? They lie under oath, you think you can trust any public statements?
Were the CHP running a dirtbox at the same time?
Was this data being dumped into a Terrorism Fusion Center?
I mean a TFC was used to deep dive some grandma’s who wrote some sort of unkind things on the sidewalk outside a bank in chalk.
What happened to the recordings of the faces?
Are there now open files on people who dared to protest violence from cops, opening them up to future encounters with police?

Police are trained with an us vs them mentality, the issue being that they are trained them (read blacks) are super ninja assassins who can kill them with a look & have thousand of weapons hidden on them just waiting for the cop to blink & then the cop will die.

But then cops spend more time investigating peaceful protests than following up leads about a guy who has been talking for weeks about shooting up a synagogue.

Its one thing when a white woman crosses the street & clutches her bag a bit tighter because she saw a negro walking towards her, a cop in the same situation is liable to pull their weapon the fire because they were afraid.

Bloof (profile) says:

Re: Re:

People wouldn’t need to record the police if they applied the law as intended, equally across the board, didn’t selectively target certain communities, publicly collude with/be members of far right groups, didn’t shoot first and ask questions/tried to smear the victims later and didn’t have body cameras that magically stop working whenever someone gets killed unjustly.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I thought to that this seemed like a waste of money. I was going to mention that in my comments above. But I had a second thought. What would be more expensive?

1) Having several cops in helicopters.
2) Having a multitude more, covering things on the ground.

Since wages are the biggest expense, 1) is the most cost effective. You aren’t missing anything, money wise. As a side note, maybe someone higher up has also made the realization that some of these rank and file officers don’t have the professionalism to deal with the public properly in regards to force and keeping them at arms length until actually needed, might save on a few lost lawsuits later.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Intimidation. The police doesn’t want protesting, they want everyone scared sitting in their home.

They are gonna be out their with their helicopters and APCs and it will dissuade decent folks from expressing their Constitutional right to protest.

Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think this to be a symptom of too much fear for their own sake. I am 100% for the police being able to perform their jobs and get home at the end of the day. But not at the expense of the general public. I see it as part of their mandate to take risks so that the genal public doesn’t have to. If the answer to an adverse situation is a hail of bullets, there is something wrong. I see it as backward that an untrained individual is believed to be able to completely retain their composure more so then a trained professional. The alternative being a civilian gets shot, just for the sake of "better safe then sorry". Most of the time that sentiment is seen as anti-cop. But I would be surprised if that is the norm for private security. I would think that a private security firm would be reluctant to field an individual that poses that kind of professional liability.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I would think that a private security firm would be reluctant to field an individual that poses that kind of professional liability.

Well, they don’t have the benefit of QI which means they can’t play fast and loose plus any extra costs incurred due to an employee’s incompetence comes out of the firms own pocket – not the taxpayers.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Police concerned about drivers of change

This actually makes perfect sense.

Peaceful protest drives change. The police absolutely do not want change — they are perfectly happy with things the way they are.

Protesters that are violent — rioters — can be locked up, and therefore can’t change anything.

So from police perspective, peaceful protesters are far more dangerous than the violent kind.

So it makes sense that police would focus on peaceful protesters: From police perspective they offer the greatest threat to the future of policing.

The despots are always most afraid of the agents of change among their subjects.

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