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‘Smarter’ policing may mean airborne cameras

With fewer resources, police need new tools. That’s one rationale Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl offers for asking the city to spend $120,000 for an airplane to monitor crime hot spots from high above the city.

The idea is to focus on areas where “patterns” of crime are developing — a spike in the number of neighborhood break-ins, for example. Finding an “emerging crime pattern that we think is going to continue” is the key to intelligently using airborne surveillance, the chief said.

“This isn’t just a needle in a haystack,” Biehl said. “Once a crime pattern has has been identified, we will arrange flight times during times we think crimes may be committed.”

In its Jan. 30 meeting agenda, Dayton City Commission had before it a $120,000 contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems Inc. — which has operations in Greene County’s Beavercreek Twp., Xenia and in Dayton — for 120 hours of airborne police surveillance.

The contract was pulled last week for further discussion, which may happen at a commission work session at 5 p.m. today.

The surveillance flights would happen mostly during daylight or daybreak and twilight, Biehl said. The piloted planes are equipped with high-definition cameras and would fly at roughly 10,000 feet above the city.

The city tested the service during a nine-day trial last year when a robbery along the Third Street corridor and an afternoon burglary were recorded, Biehl said. In one case, officers were able to recover stolen property, he said.

Some crimes may be discovered after they have been committed, Biehl said. When that happens, the department can examine recordings from above to track notable “comings and goings” at a reported crime scene, he said. If dispatchers receive a report of a crime in progress, flights can coordinate with them to “track just what’s going on,” he said.

Biehl said he’s aware of potential objections. But no one who commits crime in public should have any expectation of privacy, he said. And he said the department has “no interest” in law-abiding activity.

“We’re going to be very selective,” the chief said.“This is not a cheap technique. It’s $1,000 an hour to fly.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that police don’t need search warrants to observe from public airspace. Still, the notion of airborne surveillance leaves some uncomfortable.

“Any time the government has their eye on the population, there are Fourth Amendment issues,” said Nick Worner, a spokesman for the Ohio ACLU. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Worner argued that communities are better served by officers on the ground.

“Surveillance cameras in any form are not a substitute for human police work,” he said.

Worner wondered whether resources might be better spent putting more officers on the street.

Biehl acknowledged the cost of surveillance, but he also says that with less money, cities cannot simply put the same number of officers in neighborhoods as they once did.

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air, and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said citizens are increasingly aware of just how often — and in how many places — they are being tracked and monitored.

“I think what this speaks to is the fact that people are becoming increasingly aware of how many technologies are already employed that have the ability to track them,” Gabrynowicz said in an email. “These include smart phones, cell towers, browsers, drones, GPS, etc. The legal issues that will be raised for airborne surveillance will be similar to the ones raised in cameras stationed at red lights on the ground.”

Dayton is among the dozens of cities nationwide that have installed red light cameras that photograph traffic violators. Dayton police and other local police departments also commonly use video and still images gathered by private and public surveillance systems to investigate crimes and identify suspects.

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