Three years after it acquired a pair of drones that it chose not to deploy in response to protests about potential surveillance uses, the Los Angeles Police Department is taking steps toward starting a drone pilot program.
LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala presented the department's plan for a pilot program for limited use of drones to the Board of Police Commissioners, which was not required to vote on the pilot program Tuesday and took no action. Girmala said the department plans to hold a series of public meetings to get feedback on the program, then draft official guidelines before bringing the pilot program back to the commissioners for approval.
"I believe the technology has improved to the point where I now feel comfortable with it," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. "We believe we can keep the public safer using these devices.
No vote was taken Tuesday, but the commission plans to appoint a subcomittee to develop drone guidelines.
Girmala said the guidelines the LAPD is considering would create limited uses for drones that would respect 1st and 4th Amendment rights and that the devices would not be used for general surveillance. Criteria for their use would include high-risk tactical operations, risk of exposure to hazardous materials, detection of explosive devices, barricaded armed suspect responses and hostage rescues, Girmala said.
The use of drones would also have be approved on a case-by-case basis and they would not be weaponized, Girmala said.
Protesters shut down the meeting twice by chanting and yelling, and the room had to be cleared of spectators both times by officers.
"How can we trust drones in the hands of a police department whose police chief last week said they did not even have a management system for cadets? Think about that," said Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. "They want to fly drones, but they did not have a management system for our children in their so-called leadership development program."
White was referring to the recent arrest of seven LAPD youth cadets for stealing squad cars, which triggered tighter control policies announced last week by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.
The LAPD's move comes weeks after a majority of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight commissioners expressed concerns about the Sheriff's use of a drone. However, a public opinion survey done for the department reported 89 percent favoring it, and only 11 percent opposed.
A pair of Draganflyer X6 drones were given to the LAPD by Seattle in 2014, but they have never been deployed. Police Chief Charlie Beck said at the time that the drones could be used during tactical events such as manhunts and standoffs. But he also said the department planned to work closely with the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure the drones would not infringe on individual privacy rights.
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The chief in 2014 also defended accepting the drones, and said such devices are already being used by private citizens, businesses and sports teams.
Even if the drones are initially confined to narrow uses, they could easily undergo "mission creep" and be used to invade the privacy of the city's residents, according to some of the groups opposed to them.
"While the whole country is demanding an end to police militarization, a concerted effort to add military-style drone technology to LAPD's vast arsenal of tactical weapons is underway," the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said in a statement.
The Los Angeles City Council cleared the way in June for the city's fire department to begin using drones. A Los Angeles Fire Department report on the potential program addressed the issue of privacy concerns and said the devices would not be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement.
Despite the assurance the LAFD drones would not be used for surveillance or police operations, the ACLU and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition still objected.
"We reject the use of these drones because what you have, even in this policy document, is gaping holes for mission creep. So the issue is not if, but when, and we have seen that happen over and over again,'' said Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.