Arizona National Guard used surveillance plane to deter protests

By: - August 24, 2020 8:21 pm

Arizona Air National Guard planes refuel in midair. Photo by Arizona Department of Emergency Management

The Arizona Air National Guard flew a surveillance airplane over Black Lives Matter protests in June to aid Phoenix police in deterring peaceful demonstrations, according to a report by the U.S. Air Force’s inspector general.

“Deterring protests and demonstrations, assuming they are lawful, is not consistent with constitutional rights,” the report says.

The inspector general noted in another section of the report that “there is no scenario in which it is acceptable or permissible” to use military assets to curb legal protests. Rather, “the protection of constitutional rights is fundamental to all (Department of Defense) missions that touch on the U.S. population and it is surprising it was not more clearly recognized” by the Arizona Air National Guard.

The inspector general focused on a pre-flight briefing slideshow which said the purpose of the June 2 flight was to help the Phoenix Police Department “deter planned/unplanned demonstrations, protests or looting.” 

Arizona Mirror exclusively reported that the National Guard had used surveillance aircraft to monitor the peaceful demonstrations in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Chandler.

“Whether such an oversight points to a lack of training, understanding or experience with this kind of support, it is noteworthy as a recommended improvement area that should be addressed by the National Guard,” the inspector general said. 

The Arizona Air National Guard had been helping the department monitor Black Lives Matter protests using helicopters, as well as an RC-26 plane, which has been mostly used for counter-drug operations along Arizona’s border with Mexico.

Over the course of two days, the National Guard used the Fairchild Swearingen C26 to keep tabs on demonstrators. 

On June 2, the aircraft flew in support of the Phoenix Police Department. On June 3, the aircraft once again flew over the Phoenix-Metro area, circling protests in Maricopa County. 

On June 3, the aircraft flew primarily over protests in Chandler, Scottsdale and Phoenix at an altitude of 10,000 feet. It started circling downtown Scottsdale, but much of its time was spent flying circles over the downtown Phoenix area before appearing to end its night doing a few circles over downtown Chandler.

The inspector general’s report sheds new light on what the aircraft did while over the protests. It was spurred on after an outcry by politicians and the public after the media reported on similar surveillance activity over Minneapolis, where protests in response to George Floyd’s death originated, and Washington, D.C. 

The flights over Phoenix included two Phoenix Police officers. The officers relayed information on the protests to their colleagues on the ground via radio, as the video from the aircraft was not able to be sent to the ground live due to a software incompatibility, the report said.

The aircraft that flew over Phoenix-area protests is mostly known in Arizona for its Southwest Border missions that are part of Operation Guardian Shield. The plane flies in tandem with Customs and Border Patrol; just last week, it flew similar circular patterns along the border region

In fact, the inspector general found that the crew of the aircraft was confused and not sure if they should be flying the mission on Southwest Border Operation orders. The crew did not know the approval process for a flight for civil disturbance. One pilot, who had been flying with the National Guard for 29 years, said it was the first time in his memory that the guard had ever been involved in such an operation. 

The report also found that procedures for authorizing the flights of the RC-26s was not properly followed, due in part to the aircraft not being considered an “intelligence asset.” 

“There was no evidence any personal information was collected during the Arizona flight,” the report says. “While there are no images to examine, like were available for the Minnesota and Washington DC flights, witness testimony nevertheless helped describe in detail how the mission was conducted, and allayed concerns about collection of personal information.” 

The Arizona National Guard previously told the Mirror that signals intelligence, or information from cell phones or radios, was not collected during the flights. 

The flight over Arizona also was logged as a training flight “to conduct realistic training and evaluation in core Federal military mission areas with the incidental benefit of providing situational awareness, assessing the existence and extent of damage and evaluating the effectiveness of damage mitigation efforts.” 

The inspector general took issue with that characterization, saying that there was “little to support an assertion that this was a pre-planned training mission.” 

The proper protocol for such missions would have been for Gov. Doug Ducey or Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, the adjutant general for the Arizona National Guard, to seek permission from the Secretary of Defense to use the plane to assist civilian law enforcement. 

The C26 wasn’t the only National Guard aerial asset that was dispatched for Phoenix police. 

After the plane was grounded, the guard flew two Lakota UH-72A helicopters in support of the Phoenix Police Department on June 5 and 6. 

The Lakota helicopters that were dispatched have been part of the Southwest Border Task Force, as well. 

The Lakotas flew over the protests as part of a Multi-Agency Coordination Center, or MACC. 

Phoenix has set up MACCs before, usually for large scale events like the NCAA Final Four. They typically consist of local police, fire and military agencies and allow the agencies to coordinate more efficiently. The C26 also communicated with Phoenix Police through a MACC, according to the inspector general’s report. 

The Lakotas that assisted Phoenix police are equipped with higher-grade camera systems than the ones the department has on its own helicopters. 

The L-3 Wescam MX-15 is the camera of choice for the Lakotas, boasting a zoom range of up to 3.5 miles. A demo video of the camera appears to show the Yuma County Courthouse.  

The Drug Enforcement Agency also used one of its aircraft to assist the Scottsdale Police Department monitor Black Lives Matter protests

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.