LAPD re­vis­its heated topic of drone use

Af­ter shelv­ing the idea for years, the depart­ment pro­poses a test pro­gram.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Mather

For more than three years, a pair of drones do­nated to the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment was locked away, col­lect­ing dust af­ter a public out­cry over the idea of po­lice us­ing the con­tro­ver­sial tech­nol­ogy.

Seattle po­lice saw a sim­i­lar back­lash when they wanted to use the de­vices, ground­ing their drone pro­gram be­fore it even took off. And re­cently, the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment’s use of a drone has been crit­i­cized by ac­tivists as well as civil­ian over­sight com­mis­sion­ers who want the agency to stop.

On Tues­day, the LAPD again waded into the heated de­bate, say­ing the depart­ment wanted to test the use of drones in a one-year pi­lot pro­gram.

Drones have been hailed by law en­force­ment across the coun­try as a valu­able tech­nol­ogy that could help find miss­ing hik­ers or mon­i­tor armed sus­pects without jeop­ar­diz­ing the safety of of­fi­cers. But ef­forts to de­ploy the un­manned air­craft have fre­quently drawn fierce crit­i­cism from pri­vacy ad­vo­cates or po­lice crit­ics for whom the de­vices stir Or­wellian vi­sions of in­ap­pro­pri­ate — or il­le­gal — sur­veil­lance and fears of mil­i­tary-grade, weaponized drones pa­trolling the skies.

The LAPD saw that re­sis­tance Tues­day even be­fore depart­ment brass un­veiled de­tails of their pro­posal to the Po­lice Com­mis-

sion. About three dozen ac­tivists gath­ered be­fore the board’s morn­ing meet­ing to de­nounce any use of drones by the depart­ment. When the pre­sen­ta­tion ended, some of those ac­tivists leapt to their feet.

“Drone-free LAPD, no drones L.A.!” they chanted.

The LAPD’s vi­sion, if ap­proved by the Po­lice Com­mis­sion, is to fly a small drone — mea­sur­ing about a foot long and 7 ½ inches tall — dur­ing in­ci­dents such as stand­offs with hostage-tak­ers or bar­ri­caded sus­pects, bomb scares, or shoot­ings where a gun­man is still tar­get­ing peo­ple. The de­vices could help gather cru­cial in­for­ma­tion as such sit­u­a­tions un­fold, without putting of­fi­cers at risk, As­sis­tant Chief Beatrice Gir­mala said.

The LAPD would draw up strict cri­te­ria be­fore fly­ing drones, she said. Each use would re­quire the ap­proval of a high-rank­ing depart­ment of­fi­cial and would be doc­u­mented in a writ­ten re­port to en­sure that the rules were fol­lowed, she added.

The LAPD plans to hold public meet­ings and draft guide­lines that must be ap­proved by the Po­lice Com­mis­sion be­fore the drones can be flown. The depart­ment would also need cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion and to train of­fi­cers to use the de­vices, Gir­mala said. The process could take a few months.

When LAPD of­fi­cials de­cided to re­visit the use of drones, they wanted to take their time and not risk the public’s trust “by im­pos­ing some­thing new that is al­ready con­tro­ver­sial in our com­mu­nity.”

“In our dis­cus­sions, it was very clear that if this were ever to be ap­proved, it had to be very methodical and it had to be very thought­ful,” she said.

It’s a sharp con­trast to the ap­proach taken by the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment in launch­ing its drone. That ini­tia­tive was abruptly an­nounced by Sher­iff Jim McDonnell at a Jan­uary news con­fer­ence be­fore the depart­ment had col­lected public feed­back and af­ter deputies had al­ready been trained to fly the de­vice.

The de­ci­sion stirred out­rage. Ac­tivists staged a protest. One civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cate blasted what he de­scribed as a “uni­lat­eral de­ci­sion” by the depart­ment. Sev­eral mem­bers of the Sher­iff Civil­ian Over­sight Com­mis­sion also ex­pressed con­cern, say­ing they’d like the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment to stop fly­ing the drone.

But the com­mis­sion has no di­rect au­thor­ity to com­pel the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment. A sher­iff’s spokes­woman said the depart­ment plans to keep us­ing its drone — and it did so dur­ing a stand­off with a gun­man in East L.A. last week.

How a depart­ment ap­proaches us­ing a drone — and how it ex­plains that to the public — can in­flu­ence how res­i­dents re­act, said Dan Get­tinger, co-di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Study of the Drone at Bard Col­lege. Many agen­cies have adopted the tech­nol­ogy without much public re­ac­tion, he said.

“Peo­ple are con­cerned be­cause they as­so­ciate the drones that po­lice might be us­ing with the drones that are be­ing used by the mil­i­tary,” Get­tinger said. “The word ‘drone’ just has that im­pli­ca­tion.”

Al­most 350 public safety de­part­ments in the U.S. have ac­quired drones, nearly half of them last year, ac­cord­ing to a study Get­tinger’s cen­ter pub­lished this year. Skep­tics have ex­pressed ap­pre­hen­sion not just about how po­lice use drones to­day, he said, but how they might be used in the fu­ture.

“We’ve just hit the tip of the ice­berg,” Get­tinger said. “The sys­tems are go­ing to evolve, and that’s go­ing to bring with them ques­tions about how they’re go­ing to be used.”

Drones have al­ready prompted a flurry of leg­isla­tive ac­tion.

In an at­tempt to strike a balance be­tween pri­vacy and public safety, at least 18 states have adopted rules re­quir­ing law en­force­ment agen­cies to ob­tain war­rants be­fore us­ing drones to con­duct sur­veil­lance or searches, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures. A sim­i­lar pro­posal by the Cal­i­for­nia Leg­is­la­ture was ve­toed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014.

But leg­is­la­tion in some states has deep­ened the alarm of drone op­po­nents. In 2015, North Dakota be­came the first state to le­gal­ize the po­lice use of drones equipped with less-lethal de­vices, such as tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets or Tasers. Con­necti­cut flirted with a sim­i­lar bill ear­lier this year that would have al­lowed po­lice to weaponize drones there.

In a nod to those wor­ries, Gir­mala said the LAPD’s drones would not be weaponized and that of­fi­cers would still need to get a search war­rant signed by a judge when nec­es­sary.

“What we’re look­ing at ... is re­ally just an­other set of eyes,” LAPD Chief Char­lie Beck said af­ter the com­mis­sion meet­ing.

The LAPD’s dance with drones be­gan in 2014, when the depart­ment re­ceived two Dra­gan­flyer X6 drones from po­lice in Seattle — drones the Washington agency un­loaded af­ter heavy crit­i­cism from the public.

Although the LAPD said it would de­ploy the drones for “nar­row and pre­scribed uses,” civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates ques­tioned their use in even a limited fash­ion. Less than a week af­ter get­ting the drones, Beck said he would not fly them un­til the depart­ment had sought public feed­back as well as ap­proval from the Po­lice Com­mis­sion.

“I will not sac­ri­fice public sup­port for a piece of po­lice equip­ment,” Beck said at the time.

The drones were locked away in the of­fice of the LAPD’s in­spec­tor gen­eral. They were de­stroyed ear­lier this week, Gir­mala said, be­cause they were “ob­so­lete” and not what the depart­ment is con­sid­er­ing us­ing now.

The depart­ment hasn’t yet looked at spe­cific mod­els to test in a pi­lot pro­gram, she added.

Op­po­nents of po­lice drones were not sat­is­fied by the LAPD’s pledge to use them only un­der strict rules. In ad­di­tion to ex­press­ing fears about sur­veil­lance and the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of po­lice, drone op­po­nents said Tues­day that they wor­ried about “mis­sion creep” — that po­lice would qui­etly ex­pand the use of drones beyond what is first al­lowed. The ac­tivists said they didn’t trust the LAPD to use the drones ap­pro­pri­ately and said the fear of be­ing watched by the LAPD from the sky was alarm­ing to res­i­dents who al­ready feel tar­geted by po­lice.

When Gir­mala told the Po­lice Com­mis­sion that SWAT of­fi­cers would use the drones, many op­po­nents in the room jeered.

“We’re go­ing to fight it to the very end,” said Jamie Gar­cia, a mem­ber of the Stop LAPD Spy­ing Coali­tion, one of the depart­ment’s most vo­cal crit­ics. “Just drop the idea. It’s not go­ing to hap­pen.”

Matt John­son, the Po­lice Com­mis­sion’s pres­i­dent, said he thought drones had the po­ten­tial to help save lives, and he sig­naled sup­port for de­vel­op­ing a pi­lot pro­gram.

“Our chal­lenge is go­ing to be to develop strong poli­cies and over­sight to gov­ern this pro­gram, to gov­ern against mis­use and mis­sion creep,” he said. “It’s also crit­i­cal that we get public opin­ion like we re­ceived to­day.”

That feed­back should be taken se­ri­ously in de­cid­ing “whether to move for­ward at all,” said Me­lanie Ochoa, an at­tor­ney with the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“Drones rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant threat to pri­vacy,” she told com­mis­sion­ers. “They should only be ap­proved af­ter a ro­bust public dis­cus­sion.”

The union rep­re­sent­ing rank-and-file LAPD of­fi­cers dis­missed the crit­i­cism Tues­day, say­ing in a state­ment that drones were a “com­mon-sense tool that can en­sure res­i­dent and of­fi­cer safety in dangerous sit­u­a­tions.”

“It’s time for the con­spir­acy the­o­rists and pro­fes­sional pro­test­ers to stop ob­struct­ing ev­ery ef­fort we make to keep An­ge­lenos safe,” the union added.

Both Beck and Gir­mala ac­knowl­edged that the fiercest crit­ics would prob­a­bly never sup­port the LAPD’s use of drones.

But Gir­mala said she hoped the depart­ment’s public process for eval­u­at­ing the tech­nol­ogy would help re­as­sure oth­ers.

“We sin­cerely un­der­stand and re­spect those con­cerns,” she said. “But I be­lieve … that time will prove that we are be­ing as care­ful and re­spect­ful of peoples’ rights as hu­manly pos­si­ble.”

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

PRO­TEST­ERS leave a Po­lice Com­mis­sion meet­ing Tues­day af­ter de­cry­ing the LAPD’s drone pro­posal. “Drone-free LAPD, no drones L.A.!” some chanted.

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

OP­PO­NENTS were not sat­is­fied by the LAPD’s pledge Tues­day to use drones only un­der strict rules, say­ing the idea of be­ing watched from the sky was alarm­ing to res­i­dents who al­ready feel tar­geted. “We’re go­ing to fight it to the very end,” one anti-drone ac­tivist said.

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