The city of Lancaster, Calif. has taken a step toward becoming the first city in the United States with a plane dedicated to in-air video surveillance. The Lancaster City Council voted to approve the program, which will cost nearly $90,000 per month for the ten-hours-per-day flights. The program is called Law Enforcement Platform System (LEAPS) and may start flying in May 2012.
Last month, GovWin’s Justice/Public Safety and Homeland Security team published four blogs in recognition of Crime Prevention Month, the second of which was dedicated to video surveillance. Research Analyst Joanna Salini discussed a 1994 article out of London titled “CCTV: Looking out for you,” which set the stage for England’s surveillance and likely many programs in the United States.
Surveillance is a vital part of public safety, as many agencies rely on cameras and other monitoring equipment when manpower is not sufficient. Since the onset of the recent economic recession, many agencies have laid off public safety officials to save money. In order to still keep streets safe, these agencies have looked to surveillance as a way of making up for these losses.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Paris wants the city to become America’s safest community, especially considering its location. Lancaster is located just north of Los Angeles and approximately 200 miles from the Mexican border – two hotbeds of criminal activity. The LEAPS program is expected to provide public safety officials with video of possible home break-ins and other crimes, and improve emergency response. However, several questions remain. Is something of this cost and magnitude necessary, and does a program like this violate civil liberties and privacy?
Many cities across the country utilize surveillance as a tool for crime prevention and response, but the LEAPS program seems to take it to the next level. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed lawsuits claiming the program goes too far and violates citizens’ privacy. The city claims that the video obtained through the new aircraft is encrypted and would not be leaked to the outside. Despite this response, it will be impossible for the LEAPS program to shake the stigma of taking Big Brother concerns to the next level. It remains to be seen as to whether the program will actually take off; but if it does, it will be interesting to look at crime data in the years to come.
Surveillance programs can take a variety of forms. Red-light and speeding cameras help agencies prevent accidents and other injuries on the road, and surveillance cameras and CCTV add eyes on the street for police officers to fight more crime. The LEAPS program adds a new dimension to surveillance by providing overhead video surveillance in order to increase the ability to respond to a crime and increasingly monitor specific hot spots for crime. The program will act as a model for agencies across the country, as its success or failure will have a ripple effect on new programs like it. Should the program fail, vendors may need to look to other ways of leveraging surveillance technology to prevent crime and assist officers in responding.