In (and Above) Beverly Hills, Police Are Watching

There is no privacy in Beverly Hills.  In this town from the moment you arrive, till you leave, the cops are watching.  It does help in the prevention and solving of crime—but at what cost?

“It’s hard not to be seen in Beverly Hills. A globally recognized address for luxury and wealth, the city operates more than 2,000 security cameras — one for every 16 residents, making it one of the most closely surveilled communities in the world. The two-mile stretch of Rodeo Drive alone has 29 security cameras, and it will soon be fitted with four additional devices that specialize in collecting photos of license plates and tracking the movement of cars. Overhead, a police-run drone program, which launched in December 2021, has grown from a pilot to a seven-day-a-week operation that can cover three-quarters of the city.”

What do you think, is the privacy you give up worth the security you may receive?

In (and Above) Beverly Hills, Police Are Watching

The affluent LA suburb has pioneered an integrated system of cameras, drones and surveillance tech that could soon be coming to a city near you.

By, Patrick Sisson, Bloomberg,  1/19/23   

On July 9, a man at the intersection of Reeves and Charleville in Beverly Hills, three blocks from Rodeo Drive, methodically went down a line of parked cars, checking door handles. Several hundred feet above him, a camera-equipped drone operated by the Beverly Hills Police Department watched unobserved through a telephoto lens that can read a license plate a half-mile away.

The machine, operated by a pilot in a control room about a mile north, followed the man for roughly 90 minutes as he made his way to the city limits and left. No crimes were observed, according to the drone flight logs from that day, part of months’ worth of similar records reviewed by CityLab. The suspect likely never knew the drone was there.

It’s hard not to be seen in Beverly Hills. A globally recognized address for luxury and wealth, the city operates more than 2,000 security cameras — one for every 16 residents, making it one of the most closely surveilled communities in the world. The two-mile stretch of Rodeo Drive alone has 29 security cameras, and it will soon be fitted with four additional devices that specialize in collecting photos of license plates and tracking the movement of cars. Overhead, a police-run drone program, which launched in December 2021, has grown from a pilot to a seven-day-a-week operation that can cover three-quarters of the city.

Still to come: more cameras, plus automatic license plate readers to be installed in the city’s parking garages and “every major intersection in and out of the city,” according to a briefing made by Beverly Hills Police Department Chief Mark Stainbrook before the City Council on Aug. 23. Preliminary 2022 data suggested those cameras were on track to run nearly 40 million detections throughout the year, with an estimated 26,000 hits, or IDs, of suspect vehicles.

The city’s growing surveillance operations live together under one roof at the Real-Time Watch Center, a monitor-packed policing hub that went into operation on June 7. There, police officers can take a camera, zoom down Wilshire Boulevard, switch cameras, zoom down Canon Drive, and on and on; Stainbrook calls this “pre-crime, looking for suspicious activity.”

The aim of this citywide security upgrade is “ubiquitous coverage,” said then-assistant city manager Nancy Hunt-Coffey in August 2020, when the city approved a five-year, $14 million proposal for more cameras.

That possibility has alarmed privacy and civil-liberties advocates, who have voiced concerns about how the surveillance data is collected and analyzed, and its potential to track a person’s movements over time — all expanding before courts have a chance to grapple with the implications. Hamid Khan, a member of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, says the growing use of the type of technology embraced by Beverly Hills PD has “fundamentally legitimized the surveillance state,” as well as “codified the use of this technology as a daily practice, as an important part of their policing.”

Based on interviews as well as documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Beverly Hills’ embrace of sophisticated surveillance gear has transformed the affluent Los Angeles suburb into a high-profile proving ground for police tech. It’s a process that accelerated dramatically during the pandemic, as a persistent crime narrative gripped residents and protests around the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 fueled widespread fears of unrest and disorder. Advocates have also cited a recent spate of smash-and-grab robberies when arguing for more investments in the technology.

Other police departments across the US have likewise been pouring resources into surveillance gear like drones and video-monitoring software. Phoenix recently approved drone usage, Minneapolis plans to purchase drones, and Houston is running a drone pilot program. The use of this technology has “gone into overdrive, and is moving exponentially,” says Khan.

The sophistication and omnipresence of police surveillance — and the speed of its deployment — in Beverly Hills could suggest where the capabilities of this technology in urban America are headed. City leaders and law enforcement officials have touted the trend not only as a tool for reducing crime and the fear of crime, but as a means of overcoming staffing shortages, improving response time, and mending relations between officers and residents.

“My strategic goal is just to make Beverly Hills a hard target to hit,” Chief Stainbrook told CityLab. “Don’t come here.”

Under the Dome

During a visit to the Real-Time Watch Center in mid-November, some of the operators and officers who routinely use this technology for daily policing demonstrated how it all fits together.

In a corner of the main police department headquarters in the city’s Spanish-styled Civic Center, banks of monitors displaying video feeds surround the RTWC team, while wall-mounted screens showcase incoming 911 calls. A few signs on the wall remind officers not to tape or record calls or video.

Stainbrook says that the RTWC has become the focal point for the force, directing officers in the field and running regular patrols. One officer sits behind a screen showing live drone footage as the unmanned aerial vehicle patrols the city or responds to calls. Others work alongside staff from Covered 6 and NASTEC — two private security firms employed by the city. These contractors undergo background checks and 40 hours of training to serve as virtual patrol officers and monitor surveillance camera footage.

A recently launched Live911 program allows everyone in the room to hear incoming 911 calls and adjust their monitoring, tactics and dispatch accordingly. From this perch, BHPD can also look at officer body cams in the field, as well as any private cameras, such as Amazon Ring systems, whose feeds are shared with the department.

Officers say they’re scanning for anomalies — a double-parked vehicle, someone acting unusually in an alley. When something is spotted, other cameras nearby can look further. The security apparatus allows investigators to track forward and backwards, following a suspect who may have robbed something from a store, but also checking footage from other cameras, to see where the suspect came from, who they were with and what they drove (and then perhaps running that license plate number through the automated license plate reader system). Sometimes, detectives can use ALPR and video data to watch a suspect case the store he would be accused of robbing days later.

Some of this police work is automated via programs like BriefCam (the firm declined an opportunity to comment for the story), which Stainbrook told the Los Angeles Times helps them “review hours and hours of video and hone in on certain cars or times, locations, people, descriptions” to help authorities “quickly locate people.”

The tech can help confirm criminal activity in “minutes versus hours,” says Detective Christophe Lelong. And there are other manpower benefits, police say: If a shoplifting and a break-in are reported simultaneously and only one officer is available to respond, a drone can track the shoplifting suspect — a less-serious incident — until an officer can arrive. Officers in the field can also view drone footage on their phones at the scene of a potential arrest, increasing their own situational awareness. 

Officer Don Chase, a drone pilot, describes his work as “operating a dome over the city.”

Consider the arrest earlier this year of a suspect who was passing through Beverly Hills after committing a robbery in the San Fernando Valley this July. According to drone flight log info of the incident, a Flock Alert — a warning from a type of ALPR system — was set off by the burglary, and when the suspect drove through Beverly Hills, the system alerted officers to the vehicles’ presence. RTWC operators tracked the car using video monitoring software, while drone patrols helped officers eventually take the suspect into custody.

“Using all the technology together is what works, and the watch center becomes a hub,” Stainbrook says. “I tell the watch commander that you’re a quarterback running a play. Before a crime happens, the camera operators can walk a virtual beat around downtown Beverly Hills, looking for suspicious activity.”

Eye in the Sky

As he skimmed over Santa Monica Boulevard, Chase showed off the drone’s-eye-view of the city on his monitor: a SimCity-esque live scene of early afternoon traffic, flanked by an altimeter and a street map. He clicked on the night-vision setting to showcase heat maps of cars streaming past.

“This is all you can see from a helicopter, but it costs a lot less and is much faster,” he said. 

The drone, nicknamed Hawkeye, operates under a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration. It needs to remain in line of sight, which means someone must have eye contact with Hawkeye at all times. A local private security company, Flying Lion, provides drone services for Beverly Hills and a handful of other nearby cities, such as Santa Monica. During roughly 10 hours of daily flight time, a Flying Lion contractor monitors the drone from a launch site on a Beverly Hills rooftop; a BHPD officer flies and operates the drone within the Real-Time Watch Center.

“We don’t want to say it’s a surveillance drone,” says Flying Lion president Barry Brennan. The preferred term for the vehicle’s primary duty is to provide “overwatch” for officers on the ground. “‘Overwatch’ is kind of that magic phrase that says, ‘We’re just monitoring what’s going on,’” he says. 

The program endured some early hiccups; network connectivity issues plagued flights, and when the summer weather overheated the drone’s batteries, officers had to cool them in a wine fridge on the roof. But over this year, as the number of flights skyrocketed from 171 in January to 400 in July (and nearly 1,600 total by the end of that month), the department found more value in the program. It’s been repeatedly extended, with the current contract with Flying Lion, which budgets $700,000 total for the firm, running through 2024. (The city said the entire drone program costs $450,000 annually.)

Currently about 18 part-time Flying Lion pilots work with the BHPD, acting as spotters on the rooftop launch center and taking control of the drone if needed. They aren’t trained as officers or have the same legal liabilities, but according to Brennan, the pilots are vetted and informed in training that they may witness violent events. They’re also told explicitly not to take photos of what they see during flights, since they have full access to what the cameras see.

Flight logs show the drones getting involved in some significant incidents. One log from April 19 noted that when a BHPD officer got into an altercation with a homeless resident during a disturbance call at Wilshire and Canon, a watching drone was able to radio in and “put out [a] help call as officer involved in fight was unable to broadcast.”

Later, on July 11, a drone was first on the scene during a suicidal incident that was resolved without loss of life. In May, after a Beverly Hills High School student posted a threatening social media image of himself with what looked like a rifle — it ended up being a BB gun — looking down at the school from an adjacent high-rise. BHPD sent a drone to scan the building, window by window, floor by floor, to help find the suspect.

Flying Lion’s Brennan says that, during high-risk traffic stops or pursuits, Hawkeye can peer down into the passenger cabin of a car to see if a suspect has a weapon or is hiding evidence within the car. Chase described how he’s used the drone’s heat-vision cameras to catch people in alleys lighting up what looks like pipes — which is when he’ll call in an officer.

Where Privacy Ends

Chief Stainbrook defends this brand of proactive policing as a means of potentially warding off future break-ins and other, more serious criminal activity, noting that BHPD frequently uses surveillance footage to spot drug users. Often, after officers are dispatched, they’ll discover the users are on parole and have burglaries in the past.

But the ease with which police can follow suspects based on an RTWC officer’s assumption of suspicious activity — as well as the use of private contractors — troubles privacy and civil liberties advocates.

“I think it’s hugely problematic they’re sending the drones out on regular patrol,” says Beryl Lipton, an investigative researcher for the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Drones have a vantage point the average police officer doesn’t have.”

BHPD’s use of third-party vendors like Flying Lion is “very strange to me,” Lipton adds, because it “offloads a lot of responsibility, and a lot of police departments are just using this as a workaround.”

The department says it’s bound by and follows all applicable federal, state and local privacy laws, and Stainbrook and the officers at the Real-Time Watch Center repeatedly stress that they only monitor public spaces with “no expectation of privacy,” and only view private spaces when it’s part of a specific distress call or response to a crime or investigation. Video evidence is held by the department for 13 months (though requests to obtain drone video through a Freedom of Information Act request were denied).

 “The general policy is that this is all in the public right-of-way,” says John Mirisch, a member of the Beverly Hills City Council. “We live in a society where there are zillion cell phones that can catch anything that anybody does, or says in public.”

Indeed, there has been little pushback on privacy from elected officials in Beverly Hills. “What you’ve done is unheard of anywhere in the world,” Mayor Lili Bosse said at Nov. 1 council meeting evaluating the use of this new surveillance tech, in a response to a presentation from Chief Stainbrook. The mayor promised “whatever the PD needs in terms of funding.” When asked for a comment, City Manager Nancy Hunt-Coffey declined the opportunity and directed questions to Chief Stainbrook.

Matyos Kidane, another organizer with Stop LAPD Spying, points out that the expansion of the surveillance program in 2020 came on the heels of the George Floyd demonstrations, during which the city arrested several protesters on minor “unlawful assembly” charges, and the formation of a Rodeo Drive Task Force that was criticized for making arrests that overwhelmingly targeted people of color. 

“It’s pretty common in Los Angeles’s history to respond to criticism of policing and Black organizing through policing,” says Kidane, calling such incidents “a foothold to expand their budget.”

“These surveillance technologies have been implemented in housing projects all across Los Angeles in community safety partnership sites, and there’s been no questions about whether or not they’ve reduced crime,” he adds. “There’s been no accountability on how to implement it in any type of correct way. They’ve just been allowed to run and say it’s successful.”

His colleague Hamid Khan raises another issue: data brokering and access. In Chula Vista — another early pioneer of surveillance tech — local officials handed considerable control of information gathered by security devices to private companies, he says. Others stress that the data these devices collect isn’t always accurate, either. Mike Sena, the executive director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, told CityLab last year that between 1% and 10% of license plate hits are misreads, depending on the system.

The courts have yet to fully evaluate this new generation of police surveillance, says Lipton of the EFF. A legal concept known as the mosaic theory argues that while, for instance, stationing a police office on a public street isn’t a violation of privacy, an electronic network that blankets an entire downtown can create a mosaic of surveillance and tracking that goes beyond just observing someone in public.

A Cresting Crime Wave

Despite all the money and effort dedicated to this technology, nobody — including Lipton, Chief Stainbrook and the various vendors providing this surveillance technology — could point to a third-party study showing that it directly reduced crime rates or improved clearance rates.

Requests for audits of the technology’s effectiveness with the BHPD were met with an official response that there weren’t any such documents to request, and that the department doesn’t track the arrests made with such technology — even though department guidelines specify an annual audit that includes “an analysis of the cost, benefit and effectiveness of the system, including any public safety issues that were effectively addressed or any significant prosecutions that resulted.”

In terms of real data from Beverly Hills, “It’s going to take a couple of years to see,” says city councilman Mirisch. But during his November 2022 presentation in front of city council, Stainbrook showcased monthly crime stats from the middle of 2022 onward that indicated a small but steady decrease in crimes since the watch center went online: 149 property crimes in June versus 97 in September. The ALPR system has led to 25 stolen vehicle recoveries and 38 arrests during the same time period.

That 34% decrease in property crime was “significant,” Stainbrook told CityLab, but without more analysis, he wasn’t yet sure how much of it was due to the RTWC versus other causes, such as businesses and residents improving their own security. Several US cities, including Los Angeles, saw a decline in many types of serious crime in 2022 compared to 2021.

As far as Stainbrook is concerned, the technology’s public safety value has already proven itself, and he foresees expansion — utilizing more feeds from private residential cameras, for example. He’s proposed a multi-year plan to advance technology within the department. The department is testing drones that utilize spotlights, speakers and microphones, so remote operators can interact with suspects or residents on scene.

Beverly Hills has also applied for a Beyond-Visual Line-of-Sight waiver with the FAA, which would allow drones to fly outside of the line of sight of officers and cover the entire city “and then some,” said Stainbrook. He’d like to invest in a system that uses AI to detect anomalies, such as someone setting down a briefcase and walking away, or cars without license plates, to help make surveillance more actionable.

Implicit in his support is concerns about staffing shortages — an issue that many police departments are facing. (The BHPD recently approved bonuses to fill a slate of vacancies.) Today’s young people are less interested in careers in law enforcement; technology, Stainbrook believes, can serve as a force multiplier, as well as a way to divert officers away from interactions like traffic stops that can strain community relations. By automating some of the everyday chores of urban policing, human officers can focus on those responsible for the most serious crime.

It’s a vision of the law enforcement future that partners like Flying Lion are eager to see. 

“The technology’s neutral,” said Brennan. “I can do very good things with it, or now I can do very bad things with it. As long as I’m on the side of using it for the greater good, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.

Comments

  1. Rico Lagattuta says

    It is a shame that in order to protect it’s citizens and the businesses within the city, Beverly Hills has to resort to this type of police protection. Answer, if you are concerned about surveillance, don’t go to Beverly Hills.

    • Stephanie Knotts says

      AND keep your eyes open because where there is one, there are others (if not many). Too bad they cant prosecute the folks they catch in the act of committing crimes – that would be a HUGE deterrent and allow the rest of us, who dont want to be on Big Brother, to go about our lives with some privacy.

  2. Stephanie Knotts says

    “A few signs on the wall remind officers not to tape or record calls or video.”, well THAT is a relief for the officers since all of what they are watching and listening to is ALREADY being recorded….
    This is a VERY slippery slope. Minority Report comes to mind.

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