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Report: Homeland Security aircraft surveilled George Floyd protests in 15 cities

Officials say the aircraft flew too high to see individual faces. Critics have raised concerns about using the aircraft to keep an eye on protesters.

Department of Homeland Security aircraft were deployed over 15 U.S. cities during protests against the death of George Floyd, according to a report in The New York Times. The helicopters, airplanes and drones logged at least 270 hours of surveillance, said the report which cites data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Cities the aircraft were deployed over included Minneapolis, Detroit, New York, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Dayton, Ohio, according to the Times. The footage was reportedly fed into a digital network that can be accessed by federal agencies and local police departments to use in future investigations.

Officials at the National Air Security Operations Center reportedly claimed the aircraft were unarmed and were flying so high, they would not be able to identify individual people or their license plates.

The Times reports helicopters spent 168 hours over 13 cities, including 58 hours over Detroit. A Blackhawk helicopter was reportedly deployed over Washington, D.C. for 13 hours for surveillance and to assist other agencies.

A single-engine Cessna plane spent more than 38 hours over Buffalo, making up the majority of its 58 hours of surveillance, according to the Times.

Lawmakers have raised concerns about the use of military aircraft over protests. 

“The deployment of drones and officers to surveil protests is a gross abuse of authority and is particularly chilling when used against Americans who are protesting law enforcement brutality,” five House Democrats wrote to Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary.

Credit: AP
The Washington Monument and the White House are visible as protesters gather Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (Khalid Naji-Allah/Executive Office of the Mayor via AP)

The Times has also reported that the Air Force inspector general is investigating whether a reconnaissance plane was improperly used to monitor peaceful protests in Minneapolis and Washington.

The protests that have sprung up nationwide were sparked by the death of Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day. The widely seen video showed a white police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes. It's prompted demands for police reform, among other things.

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