MDPD Scraps Plan for Aerial Spy Planes After Public Outcry

Miami-Dade County Police
The details of Miami-Dade County's proposed plan to surveil poor, black neighborhoods with semipermanent spy planes were grotesque. MDPD had asked for a federal grant for so-called wide-area surveillance (WAS) planes, which can record up to 32 square miles at once and were first used to track Iraqi insurgents. Even worse, MDPD buried its Department of Justice grant deep in a county document and somewhat clandestinely asked county commissioners to "retroactively" approve the fact that the department had asked for the spy planes.

But after New Times broke news of the plan two weeks ago, MDPD Director Juan Perez announced in an email to the American Civil Liberties Union today that he's scrapping the program.

"There is some good news on the horizon for you," Perez told ACLU Florida Director Howard Simon at 10:20 a.m., according to a copy Simon sent New Times. "I am scrapping the project, but would like to get your opinion on the matter."

Simon said he has reached out to Perez for more information about why the department is dumping the project and whether MDPD will rescind the application it already sent out. But it's highly likely Perez canceled the program after the public found out about it and responded, by and large, with anger. (New Times has also asked MDPD for more information.)

Simon and the ACLU had come out hard against the program. They criticized Perez for the shady way the department applied for the DOJ money and for not asking residents whether they wanted their every move recorded from an airplane camera.

“We are grateful to everyone in the community who spoke out about their concerns with this proposed mass surveillance system, and to Director Perez for hearing those concerns," Simon said in an emailed statement. "We also wish to express our thanks to Commissioner Sally Heyman for pulling this from the agenda of last week’s County Commission meeting so the matter could be discussed in a public hearing with opportunity for public input." (Via phone, Simon credited New Times and the Miami Herald for putting pressure on the department to rescind the plan.)

The usefulness of the proposed surveillance scheme was at best dubious and at worst deeply offensive. According to a memo the Herald obtained over the weekend, MDPD planned to fly Cessna planes armed with high-powered cameras over certain "high-crime" neighborhoods in the county. The DOJ grant would have eventually authorized more than $1 million to fly a plane over the county's North Side police district — between Miami and Miami Gardens — for roughly ten hours per day.

MDPD wanted to use the technology to study the people alleged criminals met with "one or two weeks" prior to committing crimes, in an attempt to weed out "criminal networks" in the county. But in practice, police attempts at deducing "criminal gang members" have often been hilariously wrong and, with absolutely no evidence, have often targeted young, black children and teenagers. The plan MDPD had proposed would have implied that anyone who has friends or family in the North Side district might be a part of a so-called criminal network.

Astoundingly, MDPD also blamed escalating crime in the area on the increased scrutiny police have come under during the smartphone and Black Lives Matter age. In its application to the DOJ, the department suggested that because more people are allegedly criticizing police nowadays, residents are less likely to report crimes.

"The increase in these crimes stems from limited police resources to address specific resources and the overall state of the nation in regards to the perceptions of law enforcement,” the application read, according to the Herald. Had the tests gone well, the department would have then applied for a full-time WAS program, which would have needed county commission approval before going into effect. There were no guarantees as to whether the program would have been expanded to other neighborhoods.

The technology had been previously used without public notification in Baltimore, where it was instituted after the Freddie Gray riots in 2015. Black communities have complained that WAS planes have disproportionately targeted communities of color and police-reform activists.

“We expect that, if he hasn’t already, Director Perez will let the Department of Justice know that this community is no longer interested in participating in this experiment in mass surveillance — becoming the only community in the country to deploy wide-area aerial surveillance after similar programs were shut down in other cities," Simon said.

The ACLU has been deeply critical of the way MDPD applied for the program: The department claimed a DOJ grant-application deadline had come up "too fast" and therefore County Major Carlos Gimenez was forced to apply for the funding without first consulting the public. In the document asking the commission to approve that decision retroactively, the first mention of the actual words "wide-area surveillance" didn't even come until the very end of a two-page document dense with legalese.

Once New Times made news of the application public, Commissioner Heyman, who sponsored the commission ordinance, held the measure and waited for more public input. When feedback came, it was deeply negative.

“This is how the process is supposed to work: Decisions about what technology law enforcement agencies are using should be made in the open with input from the public and their elected representatives rather than through a fast-track grant process — in which, as in this case, commissioners were asked to give retroactive approval," Simon said today. "We also know that there are better ways to combat crime and foster stronger relationships between law enforcement and the communities they protect, such as community policing, rather than placing entire neighborhoods under surveillance and sow mutual distrust."
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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.