The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is in the process of creating a brand new surveillance program that will centralize live video feeds from security cameras (including private homeowner cameras) from all across the City of LA if its budget for the next fiscal year is approved by the LA City Council and Mayor Karen Bass.
Dubbed LAPD Live, the surveillance program would allow the LAPD to build a real-time crime center with access to not only security camera feeds, but also live streams from the department’s helicopters. The department also plans to integrate its other surveillance technologies, including the predictive policing tool Compstat, onto a single screen. Their stated goal is to have access to 10,000 cameras across the city in the coming years. The new surveillance program would operate out of a newly created command center and is projected to cost $1 million.
The department’s formal detailed plans for their new surveillance program have been described in funding request documents made public as a part of the City of LA’s budget process and in a separate grant proposal.
“With a few clicks of a computer”
If this program is implemented, the department will have real-time access to cameras on and in city buildings, retail stores, police helicopters, and officer body cameras.
Under the program, homeowners would also have the option to participate by registering their cameras with the department to more easily share footage. The LAPD would notify homeowners of a crime committed nearby and, as noted in their budget request for the program, “with a few clicks of a computer” they would have access to a homeowner’s camera footage. The department argues this will reduce the time and money spent on canvassing neighborhoods after a crime, gathering evidence, and talking to witnesses. It says this will increase community participation after a crime occurs as it “eliminates the need for officer visits to private residents” which “preserves individual privacy.”
The LAPD has attempted this type of community participation with Ring cameras before. In one recent case, users may have unknowingly participated in sharing their footage with police. A companion application called Neighbors, a Nextdoor-type forum for Ring users, sent footage and alerts from homeowners and others posting in the app to the LAPD. That footage and information would normally require a police warrant to obtain, save for folks who agreed to Neighbors terms of service that allows footage to be sent freely, even if a crime wasn’t committed.
Ring also designated the LAPD as a brand ambassador through a partnership called Pillar, giving out free cameras and codes in exchange for public sign-ups. After the program ended in 2019, a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found the LAPD had requested videos from Ring camera owners for footage of the Black Lives Matter protests.
“This is the expansion of the stalker state,” says Hamid Khan with Stop LAPD Spying, a grassroots community organization that works to expose and dismantle police surveillance. His concerns go beyond the invasion of privacy, and he says this technology will lead to more racial profiling and cause more harm to communities already impacted by the department.
Khan’s concerns are based on recent history. In 2021, the New Orleans Police Department was sued for illegally stopping and using excessive force after falsely arresting Michael Celestine. Police were monitoring Celestine for a full 15 minutes beforehand using a surveillance camera from their real-time crime center. Officers watching the security camera believed a bulge in Celestine’s jacket was a gun and they sent police to detain him. Celestine’s charges were later dropped and his lawsuit was settled for $10,000 with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Orleans.
Where is the money coming from?
LAPD told LA Public Press that outreach for this program began in June 2023, and the formal outline of the department’s plan for a real-time crime center came to light in an October 2023 grant application to the state of California for funds to combat organized retail crime. In late November, the department publically proposed the program in their budget request for the ‘24–’25 fiscal year to the Board of Police Commissioners. Seven people spoke out against the program at the meeting’s public comment section. Despite the opposition, the Board approved the budget increase.
The $1 million budget request for the program is a part of the department’s overall $239 million budget increase, the largest increase in the department’s history. That funding would cover the department’s request for software, new computers, and training. Fusus, a real-time surveillance software, would cost the city nearly $300,000 a year. If LA City Council and Mayor Bass approve the budget increase, the department plans to pilot the surveillance program in three patrol areas before eventually implementing it in all of the LAPD’s 21 community police stations and four major patrol bureaus.
The department’s one million dollar budget request is just one potential source of funding for the program. A $15 million grant, which was given to the LAPD by the state of California and which focused on combating organized retail theft, wouldcover the bulk of the cost of creating and growing the department’s real-time surveillance infrastructure. The grant funding would also cover the acquisition of 300 new automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras that actively collect photos of the public’s license plates and allow police to track vehicle movements.
LAPD’s proposed Project Blue Light, named after a similar surveillance program created by the Detroit Police Department called Project Greenlight, would focus largely on private or public partnerships with retail stores and would allow LAPD to access real-time feeds of people shopping and working. Businesses that sign up for the program would have to cover costs, which would vary depending on the number of cameras registered. The department did not give an exact number on the costs.
It’s unclear why LAPD is urgently trying to expand surveillance to combat shoplifting crimes, when the commercial shoplifting rate has been going down. Governor Gavin Newsom created the grants to help communities stop organized “smash and grab” crime rings, but viral videos of shoplifting incidents aren’t a reflection of reality or the data. Data analyzed by the Public Policy Institute of California found a 28.7% increase in shoplifting between 2021 and 2022. But even with that increase, the commercial shoplifting rate in California from 2015 to 2022 has been down 10%. The National Retailers Federation, one of the data sources the LAPD used in their grant, recently retracted its claim that nearly half of inventory losses were because of organized retail crime. Retailer data gathered in yearly surveys by the National Retail Federation indicates that inventory losses due to theft have remained at a steady 36% since 2015.
It’s also unclear that the proposed program would help with violent crime. The LAPD’s grant request cited the Detroit Police Department’s claim that Project Green Light led to a 23% decline in violent crime. However, a study by Michigan State University that the LAPD also cited wasn’t confident in those numbers. In evaluating the effectiveness of Project Green Light, the 2020 study said the program’s impact on crime was “difficult to interpret.” The study continued and said there were no “clear and consistent indications of crime declines associated with PGLD participation.”
The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which researches the effectiveness of crime reduction programs, gave Project Green Light a No Effects rating.
But stopping shoplifting isn’t the only reason the department says they want to invest in this technology. Citing a declining number of sworn officers in their ranks, the department says that the real-time crime center will be a force multiplier, giving them real-time information that will help them know when and where to dedicate their finite resources.
LAPD intends to have the program fully up and running for the upcoming global events in Los Angeles, including the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Olympics, and says it will be using real-time footage for the safety and security of the public. NOlympics, a community group organization against the LA28 Olympics, said in a statement that police in past Olympics have used the pretext of safety to test new surveillance programs on the public. The organization also says the growth and implementation of surveillance programs remain long after the events are over. The last time LA hosted the Olympics in 1984, it led to the mass purchase of military equipment and the hiring of more cops that a spokesperson for the organization says “can be traced directly to issues we face as a city today.”
Paris has already grown its surveillance capabilities in the lead-up to next year’s Olympics, citing the same concerns for safety and security as the reason for implementing a new AI-powered mass surveillance system that can read suspicious body movements. Thirty-eight organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, signed an open letter saying the surveillance program in Paris violates international human rights laws and, that “the mere existence of untargeted (often called indiscriminate) algorithmic video surveillance in publicly accessible areas can have a chilling effect on fundamental civic freedoms.”
The Board of Police Commissioners approved the department’s budget request for the ‘24–‘25 fiscal year, and the budget will go to the LA City Council for approval and then the mayor. The $15 million Organized Retail Theft Prevention grant was approved this month. Topanga Mall would be the first location to receive ALPRs and share its camera feeds with LAPD in June 2024. The full roll-out of the surveillance program is estimated to be completed by 2027.