The right ap­proach to drones

The LAPD seeks pub­lic in­put be­fore de­ploy­ing the de­vices. The Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment does not.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment’s slow and care­ful process for de­vel­op­ing a pol­icy on how it will de­ploy drones is im­per­fect, but Chief Char­lie Beck and his depart­ment are ap­proach­ing the ques­tion in the proper spirit, tak­ing pub­lic in­put and con­sid­er­ing the many very se­ri­ous con­cerns about drones be­ing used for un­war­ranted po­lice snoop­ing.

If only L.A. County Sher­iff Jim McDon­nell would take heed.

Both the LAPD and the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment have al­ready ac­quired the small, re­mote-con­trolled and cam­era-equipped de­vices that could prove valu­able in pro­vid­ing an aerial view of tense stand­offs — or could just as eas­ily be mis­used to ramp up in­tru­sive pub­lic sur­veil­lance, os­ten­si­bly in the name of crime pre­ven­tion. McDon­nell un­veiled his pro­gram in Jan­uary as a done deal and has de­ployed one drone de­spite crit­i­cism from mem­bers of the Sher­iff Civil­ian Over­sight Com­mis­sion, who want pub­licly vet­ted stan­dards for us­ing the equip­ment.

Beck, by con­trast, has sworn off drone flights pend­ing the draft­ing of guide­lines and a se­ries of pub­lic meet­ings, and amid demon­stra­tions by ac­tivists who op­pose any use of the de­vices in their be­lief — not al­to­gether un­rea­son­able, given how some depart­ments have used red-light cam­eras and li­cense­plate read­ers — that once po­lice have them they will be prone to mis­use them. The LAPD pre­sented its drone pro­posal to the civil­ian Po­lice Com­mis­sion on Tues­day and re­it­er­ated that the drones won’t fly un­til that panel signs off on de­ploy­ment guide­lines that have yet to be drafted.

That process is im­por­tant. It demon­strates that the Po­lice Depart­ment un­der­stands pub­lic con­cern over new tech­nolo­gies and their pen­chant to erode pri­vacy, es­pe­cially when wielded by armed gov­ern­ment of­fi­cers with pow­ers to ar­rest, and by a depart­ment with a his­tory of com­pil­ing dossiers not merely on crim­i­nal sus­pects but on po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies and in­di­vid­u­als hold­ing con­tro­ver­sial opin­ions. The process also un­der­scores the LAPD’s re­la­tion­ship with its civil­ian over­seers on the com­mis­sion, which at least in name are col­lec­tively in charge of the depart­ment and dic­tate its pol­icy.

The Po­lice Com­mis­sion has al­ready sought pub­lic in­put on the use of a dif­fer­ent record­ing tech­nol­ogy: body cam­eras, which were once widely em­braced by po­lice crit­ics as a tool to pro­vide an un­bi­ased view of shoot­ings, ar­rests or other po­lice en­coun­ters. In a cau­tion­ary note for the LAPD’s drone am­bi­tions, many sup­port­ers of body cam­eras now re­ject them on the ar­gu­ment that po­lice ex­er­cise too much con­trol over the video be­fore the pub­lic sees it.

Tools are just tools, whether they are body cam­eras, drones or flash­lights, and are in­trin­si­cally nei­ther good nor bad with­out care­fully crafted, pub­licly re­viewed and strictly en­forced rules for us­ing them. Such rules should be sub­ject to pe­ri­odic re­view, as should each use of a drone. The ben­e­fits of the tech­nol­ogy should be weighed against not just the mon­e­tary costs but the po­ten­tial for im­pinge­ment on civil lib­er­ties, and the bur­den should fall on law en­force­ment to make the case for de­ploy­ing it.

With­out such rules and pro­cesses, even older tools are sub­ject to abuse, as was the case more than a decade ago when LAPD of­fi­cers im­prop­erly used their heavy flash­lights as ba­tons. Much time was spent over re­place­ment flash­light mod­els, but the process was im­por­tant and won back a mea­sure of the com­mu­nity sup­port that the depart­ment had lost af­ter more and more cases sur­faced of of­fi­cers beat­ing sus­pects with their old­style flash­lights.

The LAPD could im­prove its drone process by mak­ing its pro­posed guide­lines pub­lic be­fore ask­ing for in­put, then re­vis­ing them as ap­pro­pri­ate, as many times as nec­es­sary. With­out that step, pub­lic meet­ings be­come a sort of sug­ges­tion box — not with­out value, but not as use­ful as they could be.

Like Beck’s depart­ment, McDon­nell’s has an over­sight panel — but one that is less than a year old, has no en­force­ment pow­ers and is still fig­ur­ing out its role. McDon­nell launched a one-year drone pi­lot project with­out wait­ing for com­mis­sion in­put. The law en­ti­tled him to do that. Good judg­ment and po­lit­i­cal acu­men, how­ever, would have dic­tated a dif­fer­ent course.

Last month, af­ter tes­ti­mony and pub­lic in­put, a ma­jor­ity of the sher­iff’s over­sight com­mis­sion­ers called for ground­ing McDon­nell’s drone pend­ing fur­ther study. The depart­ment has re­lied on a sur­vey show­ing pub­lic sup­port for drone use, but such sur­veys are no sub­sti­tute for care­ful vet­ting by an over­sight body of de­ploy­ment guide­lines. McDon­nell would be wise to fol­low the LAPD’s lead in ground­ing his drone pend­ing a process that in­vites mean­ing­ful pub­lic in­put and over­sight.

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