OPINION: Sheriff’s Department spied on Compton residents

The same Sheriff’s Department that is upset over federal secret surveillance in jail probe had no problem spying on Compton residents.

Editor’s Note: The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deployed a small Cessna to circle the sky above Compton for nine days in 2012. It aimed to film the city like a video version of Google Earth, capturing crime scenes that could help deputies identify and catch suspects. Ultimately, the images weren’t detailed enough to be useful, and the department axed the program. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the project earlier this month, and the Los Angeles Times caught on this week. Now that the news is out, locals are asking: Why didn’t we know? 

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A neon sign for the LA County Sheriff's Department |  Michael Dorausch

A neon sign for the LA County Sheriff’s Department |
Michael Dorausch

I am not oblivious to the fact that I can be watched and tracked by the powers that be.

I realize that when I check in on Facebook, drive my car or use my cellphone, I am practically inviting those “powers” to do so.  I resigned myself a long time ago to the idea that even in my bed in the dead of night, somebody could be watching.

So for me, the problems with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s secret mass surveillance experiment conducted on the residents of Compton in 2012 have less to do with the actual experiment than with the cloud of secrecy around it – especially the decision not to inform the public in order to avoid complaints or public outrage. Compton’s taxpayers foot the bill for the LASD in their city, and law enforcement shouldn’t forget that or take it for granted.

It doesn’t matter that the department has since nixed the program because it was deemed not useful for fighting crime. The fact that the LASD conducted the experiment seemingly without notifying anyone outside the department highlights the ongoing misconduct in the troubled law enforcement agency.

This is the same agency that took extraordinary measures to avoid FBI surveillance during a federal investigation into inmate abuse and corruption. Ironic.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department’s Sergeant Douglas Iketani openly acknowledged that his agency hid the experiment to avoid public opposition during an interview with the Bay Area-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

“This system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” he said. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so to mitigate those kinds of complaints we basically kept it pretty hush hush.”

It is inconceivable that the LASD would allow a sergeant to be quoted by any news organization saying something along the lines of: Yeah, we did it, and we didn’t tell residents because you know how people get about this kind of stuff.

Compton residents are not guinea pigs. And they are not the only Americans who find mass surveillance creepy.

Compton was just a city that the Sheriff’s Department felt was the least likely to mount organized resistance to the department’s experiment. The attitude seemed to be, “If they don’t know, they can’t complain.”

It’s highly unlikely that this type of experiment would have gone unchecked in Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Malibu or any of the other more affluent areas under the sheriff’s watch.

It makes you wonder what else the Sheriff’s Department has kept “hush hush” from the public to “mitigate complaints.”

Watch a video created by the Center for Investigative Reporting about the Compton surveillance program and other high-tech crime-fighting operations around the country:

The discussions around this experiment began in 2011 under Lee Baca, who was then sheriff, and Eric Perrodin, who was then Compton’s mayor and a Los Angeles County assistant district attorney.

Perhaps nothing can be done to hold either of them accountable. And it’s highly doubtful either man would come forth to explain his role in the experiment. But anyone opposed to secret (or not-so-secret) mass surveillance of the public, should take concerns about the Compton experiment to the seven men running to replace Baca as Sheriff.

Of those seven, at least three — Baca’s former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and assistant sheriffs Todd Rogers and Jim Hellmold — possibly knew about the surveillance and said nothing.

Given the numerous scandals and controversies that have plagued the Sheriff’s Department and the loud call for reform within the institution, the sheriff candidates need to express to the public their position on mass surveillance. They also need to propose a policy about public notification of these types of experiments in the future.

Standing up to public outrage and opposition comes with the top job and the Sheriff’s Department knows that. Experiments like this justifiably intensify and amplify that outrage. Instead of trying to avoid it, the Sheriff’s Department just needs to deal with it.

Jasmyne A. Cannick is a native of Los Angeles and writes about the intersection of race, class, and politics.  Her website is jasmyneonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @jasmyne and on Facebook at /jasmyne.

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  1. Teame Zazzu says:

    Seeing as how the dept. is obviously so disingenuous, why does anyone believe them when they claim that 1) the surveillance is not ongoing and/or transferred to an outside agency/vendor/contractor 2) that it wasn’t effective in identifying and tracking people when this tech comes directly from the battlefield and is used daily in the military
    3)nobody mentions the backend auto-tracking software.

    Isn’t this just ARGUS deployed at the LOCAL level? Its mass geo-location tracking NSA style but not even done at the intel level…

  2. this will never end why not spy on the white folks who have enough money to bring over ships of guns drugs when have you ever known a black anything to be able to smuggle tons of drugs guns children we cant go into a store with out being followed. we walk in by our selves by the time we get to where we want you glance you see two or three people looking like they are working that’s why I am so happy to see you people of non color getting away with some of the things you all do. and for the life in me why do my people want to imitate what you all do. back in the 60’s 70’s we said it would come but you should go to Beverly hills Hollywood. rodeo drive then talk about spying, hell just about all the mass murders are caused by white children in schools. not all black folks still or rob kill we work just as hard as you even harder because if we don’t that gives you all the chance to say see we gave them a chance look what happened the same thing they say about OBAMA and he came into this shit storm but you insist on blaming him just because he is a cool headed black man, when all of you folks know bush killed things for everyone and congress house, senat are still killing us folks because your scared OBAMA will do something good for us blacks you cant have that now can we so we’ll just make every body hate him keep everybody stressed out and say see we said he could not do the job hell you wont let him do his job. but you will never admit the truth because you all have to control everything how’s that working for you by the way. Jean Stallworth I live in the city that lets people of non color kill blacks and walk right out of the court room free to do it again. gave him his guns back. the other guy didn’t go to prison for killing the baby he went for shooting so many times into a car.so kill a child go free kill a truck and go to prison

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