The FBI has just released over 18 hours of surveillance video from the protests in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The release comes in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU and gives a sense of how much visual surveillance the FBI uses during high-profile protests.
According to the ACLU, the videos are all shot from traditional piloted aircraft. But as the ACLU points out drones can be seen in many of the videos. It’s unclear if these drones were piloted by police, protesters, curious onlookers, or all of the above.
The videos, which all date from April 29, 2015 to May 3, 2015, switch from infrared (IR) to traditional camera mode and zoom in at various times—though even at the maximum zoom it doesn’t appear that any faces are clearly discernible. All 18 hours of raw video are available at the FBI’s website.
After the protests occurred it was revealed in October 2015 that FBI planes using night vision and registered under fake businesses had been operating around the protest locations. This is the first time that footage from those planes has been released. As the ACLU notes, it’s not clear what the FBI’s records retention policy for videos like these might be and how they could be used for future investigations.
Freddie Gray died in April of 2015 after being in police custody while transported in a van. The 25-year-old Gray was arrested for allegedly having an illegal switchblade. While in the custody of police he suffered severe injuries to his spinal cord. None of the police officers involved in the incident were convicted, though one had been charged with murder.
It should probably be noted for historical context that when the FBI acquired its first surveillance planes in the 1970s it was actually quite a minor scandal. Their first planes were actually Army surplus from the Vietnam War.
“The FBI has provided absolutely no justification for establishing its own air force,” Representative Les Aspin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said when it became public that the FBI was buying up the Army’s old spy planes. “The bureau ought to get out of the air power business as soon as possible.”
But the FBI quickly calmed everybody’s concerns.
“It’s strictly an experimental thing,” FBI special agent in charge at the Los Angeles field office told reporters in 1975. “But we think the plane could be very effective in trailing cars involved in extortion or kidnapping plots, for example, or in rescuing kidnapping victims.”
So we know how that turned out.