Protests erupted this week when the civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department voted 3-1 to approve a drone pilot program—several months after the department first presented what it called a limited plan to use the technology.
Approval of the program came despite opposition from activists who consider the technology a threat to civil liberties and after only 6 percent of the 1,675 emails the department received about the program were in support of it.
The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners held a meeting two weeks ago, when it approved the guidelines for the 1-year pilot program. Now, after posting the guidelines on the department’s website for two weeks and receiving more public feedback, the board is scheduled to vote on its final approval.
The commission first heard a presentation on the guidelines for the proposed LAPD program in August, and the department held four public meetings to get feedback.
Approval of a drone program—or unmanned aerial system, as the department calls it—would come after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission recently voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of the LASD’s drone program, although Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the program would continue.
According to the guidelines the commission approved, drones would be used in a limited capacity, including high-risk tactical operations, barricaded armed suspect responses, hostage rescues, and situations involving threats of exposure to hazardous materials and the need to detect explosive devices.
The drones would not be weaponized or used during surveillance, and their use would have be approved on a case-by-case basis.
The LAPD’s pursuit of a pilot program is a reversal of its policy after it abandoned the idea of using drones three years ago in the face of protests from activists.
Members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other civil rights organizations have been vocal about their opposition to the program over concerns that “mission creep” will lead to the devices one day being armed or used for surveillance to infringe on privacy rights.
“Drones represent a significant threat to privacy, one that is very difficult to contain once drones are deployed for any use whatsoever,” said Melanie Ochoa, an ACLU staff attorney, at a commission meeting in August.
The groups have also said that because the emails it has received were overwhelmingly negative, the commission is not interested in the public feedback it is receiving and is just going through the motions for show.
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 addressed the issue of privacy concerns and said the devices would not be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement.