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Activists Call for More Transparency after Council Approves Purchase of Helicopter Camera Upgrade

Local activists called for more transparency in the Pasadena Police Department’s surveillance programs one day after the City Council approved a $420,000 upgrade to the department’s helicopter camera system. “Even though the COVID-19 pandemic raging in Pasadena and across the globe has caused a generational crisis the likes of which the world has not seen in decades, it was business as usual for the Pasadena Police Department,” Mohammad Tajsar, ACLU senior staff attorney and Pasadena resident, told Pasadena Now on […]

Local activists called for more transparency in the Pasadena Police Department’s surveillance programs one day after the City Council approved a $420,000 upgrade to the department’s helicopter camera system.

“Even though the COVID-19 pandemic raging in Pasadena and across the globe has caused a generational crisis the likes of which the world has not seen in decades, it was business as usual for the Pasadena Police Department,” Mohammad Tajsar, ACLU senior staff attorney and Pasadena resident, told Pasadena Now on Tuesday.

“Yesterday’s vote to authorize the purchase of shiny new camera equipment at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars while so many people are struggling is why we desperately need surveillance reform in the city.”

At yesterday’s meeting, Vice President Tyron Hampton and Mayoral candidate Victor Gordo voted against the upgrade.

“We agree with Councilmembers Gordo and Hampton that such a huge expenditure for an update in PPD’s helicopter’s cameras is a short sighted decision in the midst of the coronavirus crisis where many Pasadena residents are losing jobs and homes,” said Kris Ockerhauser.

“Also, the fact that Chief Perez said the proposal had been in the works for a year, yet PPD never brought this powerfully enhanced surveillance technology to Public Safety for public review, demonstrates the need for a plan to assure transparency and accountability for the city’s increasing use and acquisition of surveillance technology. The recent revelation of the Department’s secret use of controversial facial recognition with no regulation should have been a wake up call to the Council for the need for greater oversight.”

The department’s facial recognition software system scans mugshots and does not perform surveillance on local residents and requires detectives to determine if there is enough evidence to investigate a suspect further.

Once installed, the new helicopter cameras are expected to enhance the capability of the Pasadena Police Air Operations Section to perform aviation support for ground officers and first responders.

The air operations section operates five patrol helicopters seven days a week, providing a much needed safety barrier for police officers and other first responders, according to a Pasadena Police Department report.

Aside from Pasadena, the unit also provides aerial support to the Foothill Air Support Team (FAST) and to Pasadena’s nearby cities, Glendale and Burbank. The helicopters patrol approximately 170 square miles of coverage in support of about 12 partner agencies in Pasadena and in the other cities.

Pasadena flight crews are also frequently tasked with assisting other county, state and federal agencies in support of homeland security missions, infrastructure inspections, and critical incident planning, the report said.

Pasadena patrol helicopters are currently equipped with the FLIR 8000/8500 analog IR camera system, purchased or acquired since the early 2000s, according to the report. According to city staff report, “the police department spends an average of $40,000 in annual maintenance, with components for cameras that “often fail due to age, corrosion, and long-term use.”