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ACLU says Polk County Sheriff's Office plans to buy a new 'spy' plane raises privacy concerns

Polk County Commissioners approved a $5 million transfer to the sheriff's department to purchase a new or used Kodiak 100 aircraft. The plane will have increased surveillance and imaging capabilities that leaves some residents uneasy.
Kodiak Aircraft Company
/
Daher
Polk County Commissioners approved a $5 million transfer to the sheriff's department to purchase a new or used Kodiak 100 aircraft. The plane will have increased surveillance and imaging capabilities that leaves some residents uneasy.

Polk County commissioners approved the sheriff's office access to $5 million to purchase a new or used surveillance aircraft during a meeting last week. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says what some are calling the 'spy' plane raises privacy concerns.

"I think the the burden is on the county commission not to allow more surveillance without rules to govern it. How long are the (surveillance) tapes kept? Who has access to it? What other uses can be made of it?" director Howard Simon said.

The new Kodiak 100 plane would take the place of a Cessna 182 the department has used for the last 20 years.

That aircraft limits the possible operations of the department due to Amazon flights in and out of the Lakeland Linder Airport, commissioners said.

The Kodiak 100 is a military / law enforcement grade aircraft with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, according to manufacturer Daher.

Polk's new plane would be equipped with stronger surveillance and imaging technology that covers broader areas of land and does it at higher altitudes than the Cessna, officials said.

Chief Ian Floyd said that it would be used "primarily for drug traffickers."

"The primary mission is surveilling folks that are involved in trafficking narcotics here in the county (like) methamphetamine (and) fentanyl. These are large-level, high-level narcotics investigations and that airplane is critical for that," he said.

Commissioner Neil Combee asked Floyd if the privacy issues and the plane are things the public should be concerned with.

"That's tinfoil hat, you know, crazy-talk," Floyd told the board. "We're not out there surveilling law abiding citizens. This is primarily for drug traffickers, who are pushing poison into our community."

He added the information gained on the aircraft is not videotaped.

"We put bad guys in jail. We put drug traffickers in jail. And that's what this aircraft is meant for," Floyd said.

"It's not crazy talk for people to want to protect their own privacy. Law enforcement doesn't just say, 'Well, we're doing it for a good purpose. Therefore, anything goes,'" Simon said. "It's not the case in America that anything goes — law enforcement still has an obligation to protect the privacy of people."

Florida statute limits the government's and law enforcement's ability to "gather evidence or other information" by using an unmanned drone. However, manned aircraft are legal under the law.

But Simon said the same principles should apply — if law enforcement wants to put someone under surveillance, they should first get a warrant.

Polk resident Bonnie Patterson-James raised concerns over possible privacy issues at the commission meeting as well.

She said she does not support the decision to purchase the aircraft and questions its "implications to our community."

Patterson-James also asked why Sheriff Grady Judd would spend $5 million on a new plane but "will not spend $4 million to put cameras on his deputies."

Patterson-James was arrested by PCSO in May after throwing a rolled-up pair of women's panties at Rep. Jennifer Canady (R-Lakeland) and a deputy following a dedication of a new pregnancy center. She pleaded guilty to the charge of attempting to disturb a lawful assembly, with adjudication withheld, as reported by The Ledger.

A spokesperson for the sheriff's office confirmed the department does not use body cameras or dash cams.
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Meghan Bowman
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