Florida Highway Patrol has been accused of flying a surveillance plane in circles above a press conference where civil rights attorney Ben Crump was calling for a federal investigation into the killings of two black teenagers by law enforcement.
Publically available flight data reviewed by Motherboard show a plane with tail number N267HP flying in circles near the Moore Justice Center in Viera, southeast of Orlando around 10am on Friday, where the news conference was scheduled. The outlet noted that online plane registration records show that N267HP is a small Cessna aircraft registered to Florida Highway Patrol.
Chief of public affairs for the Florida Highway Patrol, Captain Peter Bergstresser, told Motherboard: “The aircraft was used to monitor and ensure the proper flow of traffic and crowds around the immediate area.”
He said that there was no monitoring equipment or cameras on the plane.
During the press conference, lawyers Ben Crump and Natalie Jackson announced a lawsuit against Deputy Jafet Santiago-Miranda and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office for the November shootings of Sincere Pierce, 18, and Angelo "AJ" Crooms, 16.
Mr Crump has represented the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and Breonna Taylor.
In November, Deputy Santiago-Miranda fired 10 shots into the car where AJ was behind the wheel. The officer discharged his weapon during a traffic stop as the car slowly moved forward with its wheels towards the side of the road.
State Attorney Phil Archer announced last week that the Brevard County officer will not face charges.
“For allegedly running a Stop sign, you shoot and kill these babies,” Mr Crump said during the news conference.
Aerial surveillance has been used during racial justice protests by law enforcement during the course of the last year after the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.
Vice reported in June last year that the military and the FBI had been flying surveillance planes over protests.
“Military surveillance planes over America's cities are a rare visible indicator of tectonic increases in surveillance quietly underway,” security researcher John Scott-Railton told the outlet at the time.
Authorities flew RC-26B aircraft over several cities, including Las Vegas and Washington DC. The RC-26B has previously been used for reconnaissance flights in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is equipped with infrared and electro-optical cameras.
Dozens of congressional Democrats signed a letter in June 2020 demanding that federal agencies stop spying on people taking part in peaceful protests, calling it a “vast overreach” of power.
“Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstration,” the letter said.
The FBI told CNET at the time that their “efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity,” adding that they don't “conduct surveillance based solely on First Amendment protected activity”.
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