The Los Angeles Police Commission gave unanimous preliminary approval Tuesday to the LAPD's first unmanned aircraft program, which has long been opposed by critics who believe the use of drones will lead to an invasion of residents' privacy.
The Los Angeles Police Department spent the last year testing the proposed program -- known as the Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Program, or sUAS -- using drones in select situations.
"The (program) was to be utilized as an effective de-escalation tool in the preservation of life and harm-reduction situations," LAPD Chief Michel Moore wrote in a report to the commission. "Overall, the deployment of a (drone program) would enhance the department's ability to protect and serve the public."
LAPD officials will prepare formal guidelines for the program in the next 60 to 75 days, including policies and procedures for use of the drones with a focus on ensuring residents' privacy, Moore said. Those guidelines will be brought back to the commission for final approval.
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Moore said using drones can reduce risks to SWAT officers and could also be used in hazardous material responses.
LAPD officials said the drones will only be used at certain locations of a "crisis site," but not in areas that would violate privacy policies.
Department officials also said drones will not be used for neighborhood surveillance. The drones will record the date, location and time they're launched, and that data will be audited by the program manager at the department's Air Support Division.
During the test year, incident commanders called for the use of drones six times but they were deployed only four times. The devices gave officers better views of suspects who were believed to be armed at the time, according to Moore's report.
According to the report, a drone was used in June to locate a person who was suspected of being involved in a car-to-car shooting. The suspect went into a trucking yard, and the drone was able to locate him. Moore said in that instance, the drone was more effective than a robot due to all the clutter in the yard, and it was safer than using a K-9 unit.
"The pilot program followed the guidelines to a 'T.' There was no misuse," Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said. "There was not only protection of the officers and the suspects, but (using a drone) probably saved the lives of two suspects. I think the concerns around the country have been taken into consideration. There has been no 'Mission Creep,' and with the proper oversight, I'm enthusiastic about this."
"Mission Creep'' is a term used by The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which has decried the use of drones as possibly leading to improper surveillance activities.
Opponents of the drone program repeatedly disrupted the commission meeting, again saying they feared the drones would be used for surveillance and that the devices would be "weaponized."
The commission recessed into closed session following the vote because members of the audience started chanting "Drone-Free LAPD."
"Among several things proposed, LAPD is expanding the scope of drone use for high-risk warrants," according to a statement from The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. "LAPD is upgrading the drones for longer flight times, (to) cover longer distances, install spotlights ... and infra-red and thermal sensors. LAPD is expanding the drone capacity to fly indoors with no light, which means they will be flying them into our homes and other private spaces."
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and several other organizations held a protest objecting to the use of drones prior to the commission meeting.
The department program will require a SWAT lieutenant to request the use of the drones from a captain, according to LAPD officials. The department will be allowed to fly the drones at night with a standing waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Moore said other police departments have already implemented drone programs with far more leniency in how they operate than what was conducted during the LAPD pilot program.
"We need to work in a cautious fashion that is transparent and outspoken," Moore said. "I don't want to say that we're on the cutting edge of this because that is by no means accurate, but we are committed to being on the cutting edge and a leader ... in safeguarding the privacy and constitutional rights of all involved while affording our ability to have enhanced situational awareness and to de-escalate situations."
The department experienced some issues with the first drones it used, such as abruptly losing connections with them, according to the report. But newer technology includes better sensors, higher quality video resolution and other advanced systems.
The report said the program would save the department money, estimating that between $2,800 and $3,800 was saved each of the four times a drone was deployed over the past year.
The department has four drones, some of which can be used indoors.