University Mall’s parking lot was packed just after 10 p.m. Hundreds had gathered for a May 30 protest of police violence against the black community with tensions escalating throughout the night.
Above them, two law enforcement helicopters circled for hours.
Three local law enforcement agencies and the Florida Highway Patrol have been monitoring Tampa Bay protests from the skies over the past week, the Tampa Bay Times found.
Experts warn that regularly watching protests from above may pose privacy concerns and have a chilling effect on public assembly at a time when communities across the country are demanding change from powerful institutions.
“The most basic issue is fear of investigation, fear of selective prosecution or persecution based on the act of protesting,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.
The sheriffs’ offices for both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the Tampa Police Department each flew helicopters over a majority of the protests in their jurisdictions, while the Highway Patrol monitored demonstrations by plane.
The aircraft, which law enforcement agencies say help them coordinate with their officers on the ground, have contributed to arrests over the past week in Hillsborough County and recorded hours of protest video footage.
Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies currently own eight helicopters, according to Federal Aviation Administration records, five of which were used to monitor protests this week. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office owns two and the Tampa Police Department and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office each have three.
The Florida Highway Patrol, which monitored protests on at least two days, used a Cessna plane. It declined to comment or answer questions for this story.
The agencies say they use the helicopters to help direct officers responding to incidents on the ground. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s aviation unit, spokeswoman Amanda Granit said, helps “maintain public safety” and inform “units on the ground about crowd size and location.” It also sometimes carries SWAT teams to locations. Tampa Police Department uses air assistance “frequently” to aid its officers, said spokeswoman Jamel Lanee.
“They’re just saying where the locations are of the groups of people” at protests, said Sgt. Jessica Mackesy, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
The Florida Highway Patrol Aviation Unit plane that monitored at least two protests in Hillsborough this week is used for traffic enforcement, stolen vehicle tracking, disaster support and “surveillance,” according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles’ website.
In Hillsborough County, any law enforcement officer on the scene can benefit from the air support by tuning into the same radio channel.
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Aerial surveillance of protests this week came into the spotlight after Vice’s Motherboard reported that Customs and Border Protection was flying a Predator drone over protests late last week in Minneapolis over the police killing of George Floyd that quickly sparked national demonstrations, including around Tampa Bay.
The aircraft do more than tell officers which direction protesters are headed. They also play a role in arrests.
The Tampa Police Department said its helicopters assisted its officers in making arrests, but said it is “nearly impossible to tell you just how many exactly.” The agency made 130 arrests total between June 1 and June 3, Lanee said. Florida Highway Patrol did not respond to questions about arrests it contributed to during the recent protests.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said that as of mid-week, their helicopters hadn’t contributed to any arrests at protests.
Law enforcement’s aerial assessment of public assembles doesn’t necessarily stop when the protests disperse. The helicopters and planes collect footage that can be reviewed at a later date.
Tampa Police Department helicopters, for example, record video and radio transmissions and send them to the agency for storage. According to Lanee, the agency recorded “a number of protest(s) since May 30, but not every single one.” It will share this footage with other law enforcement agencies if requested, but hasn’t been asked to share protest footage as of Wednesday.
In clips the agency posted from a helicopter recording May 30, individual protesters can be seen in enough detail to give descriptions of their clothing, particularly if they were illuminated by streetlights or lights from nearby businesses.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties’ sheriff’s offices, too, have high-resolution cameras that can record video and thermal imaging that are retained and stored for a period of time, though Pinellas’ Mackesy said the agency wouldn’t use the footage to retroactively make arrests. In 2017, the Florida Highway Patrol sought bids to equip the plane that flew over Hillsborough County last week with high-resolution cameras that take images in low light.
Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Florida, said this collection and storage is problematic, as it is often done without the public’s knowledge and isn’t clear what the footage could be used for. Transparency around when the footage is collected and how it used, she said, is vital.
“There needs to be very secure safeguards in place to make sure that if helicopters are going to be used,” Gross said, “it’s solely being used for that (stated) purpose.”
Even if the aircraft do not record and store video, the Project on Government Oversight’s Laperruque said, their regular presence and the idea that protesters are being watched could be enough to discourage otherwise lawful citizens from attending a protest.
“Regardless, protesters seeing helicopters and planes flying around (and becoming) worried creates a chilling effect,” Laperruque said.