ACLU Calls for Investigation Into CHP’s Use of Aerial Surveillance at Racial Justice Protests

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California Highway Patrol officers took to the air last year to survey racial justice protests all over the state after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Their images captured protesters marching through the streets and dancing in parks. CHP videos zoomed in on demonstrators making signs and a jogger running next to the Capitol in Sacramento.

Officers did not employ the same aerial surveillance tactics when right-leaning organizations protested Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the spring of 2020, according to public records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Now, the civil rights nonprofit is calling for an independent investigation into how law enforcement uses surveillance tactics during demonstrations. The group also wants lawmakers to step in with stronger rules against recording protesters.

The ACLU said it filed a series of public records requests last year and this spring to determine why helicopters were being used during protests against the murder of Floyd, who was killed by asphyxiation when Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

The organization’s public records request asked for recordings, footage and aerial surveillance of protests starting from March 1, 2020.

The California Highway Patrol released 17 videos of racial justice protests and corresponding flight logs from May and June of 2020. The ACLU said it could not find any footage within the records related to protests against COVID-19 regulations.

During the spring of 2020, protesters showed up en masse to the Capitol in opposition to business and school closures amid surging case numbers. Thirty two people were arrested during a May 2020 protest against coronavirus restrictions at the Capitol.

The California Highway Patrol uses air operations for rescue efforts and to monitor “incidents, or occurrences,” according to its website.

But Matt Cagle, a staff attorney for ACLU, Northern California, said the discrepancy in what protests were being recorded last year further raises concerns about racial bias in law enforcement.

“There’s a long history of police agencies fixating on Black movements of justice,” Cagle said. “This footage raises questions of what’s happening here in California.”

The California Highway Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CHP flights over Sacramento, Bay Area, Los Angeles

The daytime protests against police brutality were largely peaceful, though, at times, chaotic.

Vandalism and business break-ins at night overshadowed broader efforts to demand an end to over-policing and racist practices in communities of color. Police also responded with tear gas and rubber bullets as dispersion tactics, leading to serious injuries and a new law to crack down on that use of force.

The ACLU found that California Highway Patrol logged flights over several cities, including San Luis Obispo, Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Barbara, San Jose, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Redding, San Diego and Sacramento.

Sometimes the flight crew would label the activity as “civil unrest” or “George Floyd protests.” Another log references “riots,” and a Southern Air Ops crew monitored “looting, arson and destruction in downtown LA.”

One Northern Air Ops log references a “patrol flight over peaceful protest.” Another log from Long Beach indicates the patrol was trying to prevent a “freeway takeover.”

What California police cameras recorded

Often, patrols would circle demonstrators walking through cities or congregating in parks and zoom in on a portion of a group, according to videos reviewed by The Sacramento Bee.

During a May 31, 2020 video from downtown Sacramento, protesters can be seen grabbing water bottles and snacks from a table. Hundreds of protesters dance together in the same location in a video dated June 5.

A June 1 video labeled from Oakland includes extreme closeups of protesters’ signs, including one that read: “Police Our Own Hood Killer Cops Out.” Other videos seem to catch people who might not be related to the demonstrations. One video recorded an exercising man in Sacramento who ran past a sign sitting against a fence along the Capitol that read “LOVE.”

Cagle said video surveillance could also have a chilling effect on protests protected by the First Amendment. Cagle said it’s unknown how the videos are being used or with whom they’re being shared.

“Californians have the right to march, to speak out, to protest without fear of police surveillance,” Cagle said. ”CHP itself described many of these protests as peaceful...Yet (demonstrators) are being recorded and fixated on by law enforcement.”

The ACLU is now calling on Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the footage and then prohibit police from using surveillance equipment and software during protests. The group also wants lawmakers to expand an existing police body camera law to cover this kind of recording.

Overtime costs associated with the protests cost the California Highway Patrol more than $38.2 million after it logged 431,454 hours of additional work, according to figures released in June 2020.