Soundscapes of Surveillance

Protests flowered around the globe in support of the Black Lives movement following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 2020. In Richmond, the five confederate memorials placed along Monument Avenue became a canvas for expressing frustration, anger, and remorse. Running east-west through the center of the upscale fan district, Monument Avenue became the epicenter of tense interactions between the police and protesters. The Lee monument also became a site for imagining and creating new forms of community.

Lee Monument at the end of Monument Avenue. June 2, 2020, Image from the New York Times.

Beginning on May 29 2020, the Virginia State Police used six aircraft to regularly surveil the protests on an almost nightly basis. The fleet included three Bell helicopters and three Cessna airplanes. The Cessnas flew at an average height of 2,500 feet, producing an average background noise of 68 dB directly below their flightpath. The helicopters flew lower, at an average height of 800 feet, producing an average background noise of 83 dB directly below their flightpath. Both the helicopters and Cessnas were audible miles away.

The use of police aircraft for surveillance and intimidation, a form of weaponized sound, was seen throughout the country during the protests, most famously in Minneapolis and Washington DC, where low-flying helicopters produced gale force winds and a “deafening roar.”

On June 22, 2020 the Virginia Department of General Services, the Capitol Police, the Virginia State Police and the Richmond Police Department called for the dissolution of gatherings at the Lee Monument partly because of “excessive noise.” But the surveillance vehicles themselves produced more noise overall, often late into the night, and often over Richmond’s noise ordinance thresholds.

The Richmond police used flashbang grenades and tear gas to disperse protesters on several nights. Flashbangs can produce a peak loudness of 170 db, which can result in hearing loss and other physiological effects. As indicated by posts on Nextdoor, older Richmonders living far from the protests often confused flashbangs with fireworks and wondered at the constant drone of aircraft.

We mapped the flightpaths of surveillance vehicles, pegging their altitude to average perceived loudness on the ground directly below, based on this FAA study. (Determining precise loudness is extremely complex, and is significantly influenced by topography, weather, altitude and angle.)

In Richmond, both helicopters and Cessnas sometimes flew late into the night and early morning, well after organized protests had dissolved. What were they doing?

Flight path of state police helicopter N30VA on the early morning of June 22, 2020
Flight path of state police Cessna N764VA on the morning of June 15, 2020

While the flight data for the helicopters was available, half of the flight data for the Cessnas was not, although their paths are visible on flight radar sites. Two of the Cessnas are publicly registered (N764VA, N35VA) and are operated by the Virginia State Police. Below is a screenshot of an unregistered Cessna surveillance flight over Richmond during the protests, a C182 flying around 9:30 pm on May 30, 2020. This plane is owned by the Henrico county police (Serial 18281839) but regularly conducts surveillance operations within the city.

Click HERE to see screenshots for all surveillance flights for which flightpath data is not available.

The animated map below includes all available flightpath data for all three police helicopters (N36VA, N34VA, N30VA) and the Cessnas N764VA and N35VA. Point color indicates relative loudness on the ground. Click HERE to expand and explore the first map in its own tab. Click HERE to explore the time-stamp map.

Aerial Surveillance of Summer 2020 Protests. Combined flight data by point, time compressed.
Aerial Surveillance of Summer 2020 Protests. Combined flight data by timestamp. This is missing several flights from unregistered police Cessna.

What are they doing? The aircraft are equipped with a range of surveillance devices that enable video tracking, data from which may be saved for later analysis. Demonstrations of similar tools can be found on the web, published by contractors servicing the rapidly growing industry of big data policing. These aerial surveillance tools and techniques are widely shared across state police departments, the FBI, the DEA and the DHS.

On May 31, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a two page memorandum authorizing the Drug Enforcement Agency to “conduct covert surveillance” to collect intelligence on protesters, which Attorney General William Barr described as “anarchists and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics.” According to the original memo, this extraordinary authority should have expired on June 13, 2020. The U.S. government used aircraft to surveil Black Lives protests in at least fifteen cities in June 2020, sometimes feeding video data into the Department of Homeland Security’s “big pipe” system, which may retain data for up to five years and be provided to other federal and state agencies.

Following documented DHS surveillance of social media accounts of protesters in Baltimore’s Freddie Gray protests in 2015, many Black Lives movement protesters in 2020 carefully curated their social media accounts and used encrypted apps to coordinate. On June 26, 2020, the DHS called on social media companies to remove posts calling for civil disobedience. Some protesters suspected that police used facial recognition technology through social media to identify and track protesters. But if true, this would be frustrated by the sanctioned use of face-masks during the COVID pandemic. Additional tracking might then be accomplished by following protesters movements from the air, while keeping many other Richmonders up at night.

On the early morning of June 25th a protester was arrested and charged with a felony for aiming a laser at surveillance aircraft. Some protesters believed that surveillance aircraft were collecting cell phone information by using IMSI-catchers such as Stingrays. The US Justice department requires federal agents to obtain warrants before collecting data using such devices, except in extraordinary cases. This is also the case for Virginia state law.

In addition to state and county surveillance aircraft, Black Hawk helicopters operated by the National Guard have been employed in “show of force” operations in both Washington DC and Richmond. These entail low flyovers of protests and protesters’ neighborhoods, producing substantial noise. On June 29th, a Black Hawk flew as low as 650 feet over neighborhoods in the Museum District and Northside, producing a background noise of approximately 89 dB on the ground.

Being between major military bases and Washington DC, military aircraft flyovers of Richmond are not uncommon. There is an Air National Guard Black Hawk service station near the Richmond airport. However, protesters reported increased military aircraft activity during the height of the protests, often involving Black Hawk helicopters flying over neighborhoods. Most of these flights do not appear on commercial radar websites.

Surveillance by Cessnas continued to operate through July 2020, primarily the Henrico police aircraft N60430, data for which is unavailable on commercial radar sites. (Screenshots are available at the bottom of this page. ) According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, by mid July the Richmond Police had spent at least $1.9 million responding to protests. This number does not appear to include the costs for hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance. A Freedom of Information Act filed to obtain records and information regarding the activities of the surveillance plane registered by the Henrico Police was denied in June 2020.

While the intensive surveillance of the summer 2020 protests represented a new pattern of policing in Richmond, regular air surveillance of particular Richmond communities has taken place for years. A recent example includes aerial surveillance on March 19, 2020 during a massive raid on Creighton, Mosby, and Whitcomb courts. The raid included over eighty state and federal agents, but produced only $1,500, four guns, and “unspecified” amounts of marijuana, heroine, and crack. Aerial surveillance of the protests in the upscale Monument Avenue neighborhood has introduced the soundscape of surveillance that residents of the “courts” have experienced for decades.

March 19 2020 Aerial Surveillance of Massive ATF Raid.

Update (9/8/21)