Earlier this summer, the nation was startled to learn that the FBI operates a fleet of more than 100 small planes that gather surveillance around American cities. The planes, an Associated Press investigation revealed, fly low in mysterious circular patterns; their registrations, meanwhile, are often tied to fake companies.
“The aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras and, in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cell phones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans’ privacy,” the AP reported.
That blockbuster story was spurred by the investigative work of 23-year-old aviation enthusiast and blogger Sam Richards, who used a website to track a flight pattern of a suspicious-seeming plane circling Minneapolis, where he lives. When he sifted through the strange shell companies behind the plane, he blew the whistle on his blog.
Now Richards has turned his attention to South Florida — and sure enough, he’s found evidence of our own mystery Cessna buzzing residential areas.
“So I checked into it,” he says of one of the flight patterns. “And the registration looked really hokey to me.”
Richards says that after researching — and discovering what appeared to be one related fake business — he was able to track the plane’s registration phone number to a South Florida fusion center, one of the “information sharing” locations set up by Homeland Security after 9/11.
But the plane wasn’t one of the FBI crafts although it appeared to be doing similar surveillance work. Richards inquired with the fusion center, he says, only to receive evasive responses. Because of the flight pattern, he became convinced that the plane was almost certainly “being operated from a local law enforcement [agency].”
So whose plane is it? Quite possibly, it’s a Miami-Dade Police Department aircraft. In addition to keeping four helicopters, the county’s largest force has one Cessna on hand, MDPD spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta confirms to New Times.
“It’s just a regular white Cessna,” Zabaleta says. “It’s not something that’s commonly used.”
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The plane is mostly used for surveillance operations, like narcotics missions, Zabaleta says. The department often partners with other agencies in such cases. The plane, which is unmarked, has been in operation for years, he says.
Though the department doesn’t advertise its air missions for obvious reasons, the spokesman adds, he also downplays any suggestion that Richards’ work should cause any concern about police surveillance in unmarked aircraft.
“I don’t think it’s a secret,” Zabaleta says. "It's just a regular white Cessna. Most of the time it's parked."