“What this represents is the rapid escalation and militarization of police,” Kahn said. His group cited mistrust of the Sheriff’s Department within some communities in light of the controversy at the Men’s Central Jail which led to the conviction of former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, the firing of several deputies, and the on-going trial of former Sheriff Lee Baca as these cases relate to a federal investigation of inmate abuse and misconduct at the highest levels.
“We have more than 3,000 signatures from citizens who reject the use of surveillance drones by the department,” Kahn continued. “People believe this is a method of social control that can quickly lead to abuse. The department has a history of abusing citizens; they’re among the top five in the nation in relation to officer-involved shootings and resulting deaths.” Kahn’s group plans to continue its campaign against drone use by attending each meeting of the Board of Supervisors until the proposal is rejected.
Eyes over Compton
McDonnell disputes that the drone will be used to spy on innocent people, adding that the dangers of law enforcement can never be eliminated but “this technology can assist us in reducing the impact risks on personnel,” he said. So far, eight deputies have been trained to fly the device which can maneuver up to a mile from its operator and remain airborne for at least 20 minutes. The Sheriff’s Department had to submit to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) a list of “tasks” that the drone will carry out such as destination and purpose; the department is required to notify the FAA whenever the device is in flight and maintain some sort of eye contact with it at all times to keep with federal regulations. Those “tasks” referred to are not always known by the FAA because placing the device into service may come about at short notice, possibly making it difficult to quickly inform federal regulators. “We don’t always prohibit the type of flight activity that a law enforcement agency conducts,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “We do have limitations on the conditions under which a drone can fly.”
California has obtained 30 of the 300 or so “certificates of authorization” issued to U.S. law enforcement agencies for similar vehicles.
Where and when these drones can fly locally has been a controversial issue at least since 2012, when the Sheriff’s Department reportedly flew a drone attached to a fixed-wing Cessna airplane over Compton. Kahn said neither the mayor of Compton nor anyone in the city knew about the incident and the secrecy, he said, is precisely why the public should be wary of this new method of patrolling. “The Compton case is a clear example of the overreach these type of devices can have on the unwitting public,” Kahn said. “They did this without public approval. That’s why we should be concerned about this matter. If they can do that, then what limits will they adhere to?”
Patrolling the border
The Board of Supervisors has since unanimously approved a review of the drone operation by the County inspector general who will evaluate the findings with the civilian oversight commission which serves as a watchdog of the LASD.