Activist Groups, Local Mayors Blast MDPD's Plan to Spy on Dade With Planes

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez with MDPD Director Juan Perez
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez with MDPD Director Juan Perez Miami-Dade County Police
In 2012, Homeland Security Bureau operatives within Miami-Dade County Police began tracking the social media accounts of Occupy Miami protesters. The cops tracked Occupy protesters daily and sent out "situational awareness" bulletins to specific officers when activists hosted events as innocuous as a "Jazz Night."

Muhammed Malik, a local civil rights activist, remembers that ordeal well: He was mentioned by name in the surveillance documents. And now, as Miami-Dade County Police pitch a plan to fly small airplanes to take constant footage of 32 square miles of the area at once, Malik tells New Times he doesn't want to see Miami's surveillance state expand again. So before the measure is voted on during today's county commission meeting, he'll join several local civil rights groups in signing a letter demanding MDPD drop its plans to use so-called wide-area surveillance (WAS) aircraft.

"The adoption of a wide area surveillance system is an unacceptable radical expansion of unwarranted mass surveillance in Miami-Dade county," the letter says. "'We do have the expectation that our movements will not be tracked and recorded around the clock by our local police department ... We recognize also that certain communities in the county will have their movements tracked by this technology more closely than others. Communities of color, immigrants, religious minorities, political activists, and LGBTQ people have all been disproportionately targeted by government surveillance."

Signatories include the South Florida chapters of both the National Lawyers Guild and Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as the national women's rights group CodePink and the civil-liberties organization Defending Rights and Dissent.

The civil rights groups aren't alone in pushing back on the plan. At least four city mayors — including Miami's Tomas Regalado and South Miami's Phillip Stoddard — tell Political Cortadito this morning that they'll also oppose any push by Gimenez to use the technology over their cities. "He’s going to have to do it in unincorporated Dade because he has no jurisdiction here,” Regalado told Political Cortadito.

Some of the groups that signed onto the letter say MDPD needs to outline exactly how the recordings will be stored, and who they can be shared with, before even thinking about bringing the measure to a commission vote.

"We don't know what agencies will be on the receiving end of the information sharing, and expect that federal agencies, including ICE, the FBI, CIA, and NSA will all have access to the data," Sue Udry, the executive director of the national group Defending Rights & Dissent, told New Times via email. "People in Miami-Dade have a right to be very concerned about the police department's use of this technology, and the cavalier way the mayor and board of commissioners is treating their privacy."

The letter is the second official public demand that MDPD hold off on adopting its spy-plane program. On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida issued a blistering statement demanding MDPD rescind its application for the technology until the department explains itself to the public, at the very least. The surveillance system MDPD wants to adopt was first developed to track "enemy combatants" in the Iraq War, before being pitched as a tool to track innocent Americans going about their day-to-day lives.

Documents submitted by the commission, first reported by New Times last Thursday, showed that MDPD has already applied for a $500,000 Department of Justice grant to begin testing the program. The department claimed the deadline to apply for the grants had allegedly been too pressing to wait to notify the public, and so County Mayor Carlos Gimenez's office applied for the DOJ money without first getting public approval. Today, MDPD will ask the commission to retroactively sign off on the measure.

While members of the public have said the planes scare them, the super-majority of conservative commissioners on the dais means the measure will likely pass. (One commissioner, Joe Martinez, is a former MDPD cop.)

So far, county police have not provided any sort of justification as to why the department needs to ratchet up surveillance of its own citizens. As of last year, major crimes across the county had dropped to levels not seen since before the city's drug struggles throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Speaking with the Miami Herald, police officials justified the program as "like a DVR" for an entire city, and Gimenez said that residents have "no expectation of privacy" when they step outside.

But both justifications are not convincing: Gimenez's response, in particular, simply boils down to "this is technically legal," rather than "we need this to curb rising crime."

The WAS technology was first developed by an Air Force researcher, who called the program "Angel Fire" when he gave it to the military in 2006. That researcher now runs a private company called Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), which specializes in marketing the re-tooled "Angel Fire" system to local cops. A few competitors to PSS also exist.

Once a department adopts the program, PSS or one of its competitors flies Cessna planes over a given target area. The planes are equipped with megapixel cameras. Computer algorithms then stitch the footage together into a rewindable recording of an entire city's movements, which cops can use to track civilians in real-time. The ACLU has called the technology "terrifying" and a "Big Brother" eye-in-the-sky.

Previously, the spy-planes were flown over Compton, California and Baltimore without any advanced warning to the public. In Baltimore's case, local police adopted the technology after the Freddie Gray riots, a move that deeply upset civil-rights organizers.

The activists' letter urges the county to pull the item indefinitely — but if that's not possible, they at least request the measure be postponed until a later commission meeting, just to give the public more time to process the news.

"That the public safety committee could unanimously approve this item without seeking public input is deeply disturbing," the letter says. "Although we believe this item should be rejected by the commission, if the commission does not chose to do so, the Item should be pulled from the June 6th agenda and re-scheduled for a future Commission meeting at which the public should be expressly invited to communicate its views during Public Comment."

Malik tells New Times that local police have already betrayed their trust with local residents on scores of occasions, and the public should therefore be concerned that the county commission might give the department carte blanche to spy on entire neighborhoods and small Dade cities from the air.

"Having been surveilled by police myself, and given the kind of continuing concerns that residents in Miami-Dade County have with the lack of real accountability from local police, this is another sign that residents need to be concerned," he said. "Now we have the added concern of Big Brother watching every move on behalf to the public. It's definitely irresponsible the way they have applied for this so far. It tarnishes reputation of Miami-Dade County."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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