The Miami-Dade Police Department has decided to drop its wide-area surveillance plan in the face of public backlash. The MDPD tried to slip it past residents and the county government by claiming the acquisition of a secret spy plane was too important to be done properly.
Documents submitted by the commission, first reported by New Times last Thursday, showed that MDPD has already applied for a $500,000 Department of Justice grant to begin testing the program. The department claimed the deadline to apply for the grants had allegedly been too pressing to wait to notify the public, and so County Mayor Carlos Gimenez's office applied for the DOJ money without first getting public approval.
A classic case of asking forgiveness rather than permission, coupled with a deliberate attempt to circumvent the part of the process that would have caused the most problems for the MDPD's surveillance plans: the public's comments.
Once the document was posted publicly, the backlash began, led by a number of rights groups including the ACLU and the Defending Rights and Dissent Foundation. The surveillance system sought is repurposed Iraq War tech: a high-powered camera system mounted on an airplane that proponents and opponents both describe as a "DVR for real life." Capable of capturing a 32-square-mile area, the cameras don't provide much in terms of close-up detail, but do allow law enforcement agencies to track people's movements over a several hour period, whether in real-time or by replaying recordings.
As the Miami New Times reports, the MDPD has offered no justification for this expansion of its surveillance powers. Apparently, the new surveillance tech was supposed to sell itself, what with most of the cost being offset by a $500,000 DOJ grant. Just as disturbing is the fact that so few county lawmakers questioned the acquisition, even after being made aware the MDPD had already applied for the grant without running it by them first.
Fortunately, the plan is now dead. The MDPD may still want its eye in the sky, but its top official has decided he won't go against the public's will... for now.
[A]fter 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."
The ACLU is obviously pleased with this decision, but still hasn't heard from the MDPD director whether this includes trashing its DOJ grant request, or whether this grant money might be still be used to purchase other surveillance gear the public won't know about until it's on the doorstep of approval.
The good news is the public's voice was heard, if a little after the fact. The invaluable reporting by the Miami New Times was instrumental in mobilizing opposition, something good journalism has a tendency to do. The real test of the MDPD's new outlook will be when the next opportunity to buy up surveillance gear with federal grants arrives. Hopefully, it will seek out public comment first, rather than only react when the backlash becomes too much to ignore.