LAPD’s Growing Use of Surveillance State Technology


With the recent protest in Ferguson, MO over the shooting of Michael Brown and the heavy handed response of the Ferguson police department, bringing out mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP), tear gas, snipers, and camouflaged dressed cops, much focus has been put on the militarization of the police force.

Los Angeles is no stranger to a militarized police force. The LAPD created the first SWAT team in the nation in 1967. You could say we started the trend in police force militarization. So it should be no surprise that the LAPD continues to lead the way in using military grade tools and technology to “maintain the peace,” especially by means of surveillance.

The following is a list of technology the LAPD has in its possession to reduce crime, many of which are controversial and raise concerns about privacy.

Drones

The LAPD currently has two Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. They received these from the Seattle Police department which needed to get rid of them because the residents there didn’t want them.

The drones are currently on locked down; awaiting the results of a review by the the LAPD, the Board of Police Commissioners, and the public. The purpose of the review is to determine whether the LAPD can use the drones to prevent “imminent bodily harm” in situations such as a hostage situation or barricaded armed suspect — not for surveillance. Of course overtime the broad term “imminent bodily harm” could come to refer to situations like civil protests.

Predictive Policing

In 2012 the LAPD started taking a more Minority Report approach to policing. They started using a predictive policing application called PredPol. It’s a cloud-based software that uses crime analytics and algorithms to try and predict criminal activity. The algorithms used by PredPol were originally developed, with grants from the military, to apply statistical modeling to deal with military problems such as counter terrorism and insurgency.

Facial Recognition Software

It’s no secret in Los Angeles that there’s a growing number of CCTV cameras placed throughout the city watching us. Many of these cameras are deployed by the LAPD. The scary part is that they use facial recognition software which captures images and looks for matches in the police department’s database. The software was developed by Neven Vision, a company which Google now owns.

Neven also created a mobile handheld biometric ID system. Cops use this in the field to take images which are then compared with the department’s databases of gang members, criminal suspects, missing persons, etc.

License Plate Recognition System

Another surveillance tool used by the LAPD is PlateScan. This system uses video cameras mounted on the front and rear of patrol cars and a mobile computer to scans plates, time-stamp them and records the location. PlateScan then cross-checks the plates against local and national databases to identify stolen cars and cars owned by “persons of interest.” The problem is everybody’s car gets scanned, both innocent and criminal. There’s also an issue with how long the police department retains this information.

Intelligence-Analysis System

Lastly, the LAPD is using an intelligence-analysis program which enables someone to search for a suspect or target by data-mining all of the disparate sources of information the department uses such as evidence management systems, arrest records, warrant data, subpoenaed data, gang intelligence, suspicious activity reports, and emails. This system, known as Palantir Law Enforcement, can also be accessed in the field via a mobile device.

This program is developed by a firm in Silicon Valley called Palantir, named after Palantiri seeing stones from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Some of the firm’s other clients include the CIA, NSA and the FBI. Marines have also used its tools in Afghanistan.

Of course all of this surveillance technology is not sitting well with Angelenos. A group known as the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has launched a campaign against the LAPD’s use of drones. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently sued the LAPD and the Sheriff department to make them turn over the information they’ve collected by their license plate scanners.

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