By G.W. Schulz and Amanda Pike.

When sheriff’s deputies here noticed a burst of necklace snatchings from women walking through town, they turned to an unlikely source to help solve the crimes: a retired Air Force veteran named Ross McNutt.

McNutt and his Ohio-based company, Persistent Surveillance Systems, persuaded the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to use his surveillance technology to monitor Compton’s streets from the air and track suspects from the moment the snatching occurred.

The system, known as wide-area surveillance, is something of a time machine – the entire city is filmed and recorded in real time. Imagine Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.

“We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people,” McNutt said. “Our goal was to basically jump to where reported crimes occurred and see what information we could generate that would help investigators solve the crimes.”

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department used high-powered surveillance cameras attached to a small civilian aircraft to monitor Compton’s streets. Credit: CIR

McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.

“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”

McNutt’s airborne cameras are just one part of a new digital movement in law enforcement. The Hollywood version of American policing is made up of darkened command centers where a wellspring of digital data about criminals always seems just a few clicks away.

In cities across the country, that fiction is inching closer to reality.

The FBI is rolling out a sprawling data complex that contains over 147 million mug shots and sets of fingerprints, many of which belong to people who are not criminals. Local law enforcement analysts are using surveillance centers to monitor video feeds and reported crimes minute by minute.

The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED teamed up to take an inside look at the emerging technologies that could revolutionize policing – and how intrusively the public is monitored by the government. The technology is forcing the public and law enforcement to answer a central question: When have police crossed the line from safer streets to expansive surveillance that threatens to undermine the nation’s constitutional values?

In one city, law enforcement officials don’t need to see your identification: They just need your face. Police officers in Chula Vista, near San Diego, already have used mobile facial recognition technology to confirm the identities of people they suspect of crimes. After using a tablet to capture the person’s image, an answer is delivered in eight seconds. (About 1 percent of the time, the system retrieves the wrong name, according to the manufacturer, FaceFirst.)

Chula Vista is now part of a larger trend in law enforcement to use unique biological markers like faces, palm prints, skin abnormalities and the iris of eyes to identify people.

“You can lie about your name, you can lie about your date of birth, you can lie about your address,” said Officer Rob Halverson. “But tattoos, birthmarks, scars don’t lie.”

The FBI, meanwhile, is finalizing plans this year to make 130 million fingerprints digital and searchable.

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Persistent Surveillance Systems’ technology captures in real time a necklace snatching and the getaway car that was involved. Credit: CIR

Many of the fingerprints belong to people who have not been arrested but simply submitted their prints for background checks while seeking jobs. Civil libertarians worry that facial images for these individuals could be next. The FBI already maintains a collection of some 17 million mug shots.

This personal information is now housed in a West Virginia-based storage facility the size of two football fields containing row after row of blinking and buzzing server stacks. These machines are the heart of the FBI’s Next Generation Identification program, which seeks to make it easier for police officers and investigators around the nation to distinguish one human being from another based on biological traits.

“What it potentially means is that we’re able to catch bad guys faster, and we’re able to get them off the streets a lot faster with the technologies we have so they don’t commit another crime,” said Jeremy Wiltz, acting assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division.

Such technology, he said, also could exonerate innocent people and keep them from being held in a jail cell for days or longer. Audits have been conducted to ensure Next Generation Identification isn’t accessed by local police for conducting inappropriate searches, Wiltz added.

The potential for misuse nonetheless troubles civil libertarians.

Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said she’s concerned the government will eventually collect and store face images like it does now with the tens of millions of fingerprints submitted by people seeking certain jobs. She’s worried such data will be merged with criminal records that are currently kept separate – resulting in innocent people being placed under suspicion.

“Once the nation has a facial recognition database, and once facial recognition capabilities improve to the point that we can identify faces in a crowd, it will become possible for authorities to identify people as they move through society,” Lynch said.

As for wide-area surveillance, McNutt said that ground-based cameras offer higher resolutions and that his technology cannot zoom in on faces or other particular details. But cameras on the ground are limited in range, and a seemingly infinite number would be necessary to blanket an entire city. McNutt believes his technology will be good enough in a few years to cover twice as much area – perhaps as large as the entire city of San Francisco.

In the case of a Compton necklace snatching, the suspects eventually drove out of camera range without being identified, said L.A. County sheriff’s Sgt. Doug Iketani, who supervised the project. He added that McNutt’s system can’t provide the kind of detailed, close-up images that would survive in court. But Iketani said the technology did give police useful leads.

So why have the people of Compton heard little about this experiment until now?

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The Los Angeles Police Department’s Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division has access to 1,000 surveillance cameras spread across the city. Credit: G.W. Schulz/CIR

“The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” Iketani said. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”

Elsewhere in the Los Angeles area, police are facing similar challenges at a command center near downtown where law enforcement analysts observe a video surveillance feed aimed at the iconic Hollywood sign, which police say is sometimes targeted by vandals and is vulnerable to fires.

Policing the Hollywood sign is one of many tasks of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Real-Time Analysis and Critical Response Division – looking not unlike other high-tech law enforcement centers that have sprung up around the country as part of a post-9/11 trend known as predictive or intelligence-led policing. The goal: speed up reaction times or, better yet, intercede before new crimes, including potential precursors to terrorism, occur.

The center has access to 1,000 surveillance cameras spread across the city. Also available, through a feed to the center, are social media sites, news broadcasts and data captured by license-plate recognition devices.

There’s also a wall-mounted digital map of real-time reported crimes around Los Angeles that could provide analysts with valuable insight into when and where crimes are most likely to occur, where trends are emerging and where officers should be patrolling.

Like many cities around the country, Los Angeles is grappling with unease from residents over thousands of networked cameras that can peer into many corners of our lives, often without us being fully aware of it.

The center’s commanding officer, Capt. John Romero, recognizes the concerns but equates them with public resistance to street lights in America’s earliest days.

“People thought that this is the government trying to see what we’re doing at night, to spy on us,” Romero said. “And so over time, things shifted, and now if you try to take down street lights in Los Angeles or Boston or anywhere else, people will say no.”

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Originally posted at The Center for Investigative Reporting.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.