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LA sheriff seeks public input on drones

LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
LA Sheriff's officials unveiled the department's drone in January at the Hall of Justice in downtown L.A.

It's been six months since the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched its first drone. Now the department wants to hear from the public about its use of the drone and whether more should be deployed. 

"We have always, from the very first day, wanted to be completely transparent," said Sheriff’s Captain Jack Ewell, who commands the special operations bureau that flies the drone.

"This just a good time to reach out and ask people, 'OK, how are we doing?'" he said.

The department is seeking public input through July 13 here.

To be sure, the public hasn’t gotten much of a look.

The sheriff's department limits the use of its camera-equipped drone to search and rescue, bomb and hazardous materials detection, and sneaking up on barricaded suspects. It’s been used about half a dozen times, said Ewell.

Most involved search and rescue operations. One involved a dangerous face-off with a gunman.

"We had an active shooter and we were able to use the unmanned aircraft to get into an area to see exactly where the gunman was," Ewell said. "It just flew a few feet off the ground and alongside the house."

Sheriff Jim McDonnell is a fan. Upon launching the drone in January, he called it "a tremendous asset [that can] help protect our folks as well as those we serve."

Aware the word "drone" can spark controversy, Ewell prefers to call them "unmanned aircraft."

The sheriff has no plans to deploy more drones – or to arm them with weapons, he said.

"There are no talks of expanding, whatsoever," said Ewell. "The one unmanned aircraft that we have is more than sufficient to handle our call load."

But some worry that policy could change.

"We are worried about mission creep," said Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which also works as a sheriff's department watchdog.

"What is the long term capacity for these drones to negatively impact our communities?" he said, pointing to the possibility of weaponizing drones or spying.

The Connecticut state legislature is considering a bill that would allow police to place lethal weapons on drones. It would be the first state in the nation to do so.

"We need to see drones in the context of the enhanced militarization of police departments," Khan said. He added he saw too little discussion of the sheriff's initial deployment, and believes the department is trying to "play catch-up" by inviting public comment now.

Three years ago, Kahn’s coalition helped ground the LAPD’s plans to fly drones that were donated to the department. They remain in storage.