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Police Commission OKs LAPD 1-year drone pilot program

A Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle used by the Mesa County Sheriff's Dept. unmanned operations team.
Courtesy of Mesa County Sheriff's Dept.
The Seattle Police Department donated two Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles like this one to the LAPD in 2014. The L.A. policy agency never used them, and said this summer that it destroyed them.

The Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday gave the LAPD the go-ahead to start a one-year experiment using an unarmed drone to deal with certain tactical situations. The department's guidelines state that it won't weaponize the vehicles or use them to illegally spy on the public, but the 3-1 vote sparked angry chants of "shame on you" by drone opponents.

The police agency's plan calls for using the camera-equipped drone to provide its SWAT team with "situational awareness" when dealing with active shooters, armed barricaded suspects, hostage situations, hazardous materials, natural disasters, explosive devices and search-and-rescue operations.

The department will also be able to use the vehicle to conduct "perimeter searches of armed suspects with superior firepower, an extraordinary tactical advantage, or who are wanted for assault with a firearm against a police officer."

The drone will be "an additional tool to de-escalate volatile tactical situations while reducing harm to the public, officers and to suspects," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in a letter to the police commission that accompanied the drone proposal.

The guidelines state, in bold, that drones "shall not be deployed or used with any weapons capabilities including any non-lethal or less-than-lethal weapon systems."

In response to privacy concerns, the guidelines state that the drone "shall not be deployed in violation of the law or Constitution." Under the policy adopted Tuesday, "[u]nless a lawful exception applies, Department personnel shall obtain a search warrant or other lawful process when required under the Fourth Amendment or other provision of the law."

Commission Vice President Matthew Johnson said before the vote that the plan was amended to include language stating that the drone "will not be deployed with any facial recognition software."

Commission member Cynthia McClain-Hill voted against the pilot program, arguing that the police department still has not built enough trust in the community regarding this technology.

The Seattle Police Department gave the LAPD two Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in 2014. Seattle abandoned its program in the face of widespread concern over privacy and the potential for misuse. L.A. locked the drones away after public opposition to their use, and the department said it destroyed them this summer.

After the vote, Beck said he expects to purchase two drones, one for general use and one for backup. He said they will be "very small, incapable of carrying anything." 

The department crafted "stringent" conditions for approving drone deployment, Beck said in his letter. Any deployment will have to be approved by an officer at the rank of deputy chief or higher, and the chief will be notified.

The proposal says the department will provide the police commission and the public quarterly status reports on the use and deployment of its drone. 

Asked after the vote about the ongoing suspicion that the LAPD will eventually arm the drone or use it to spy on the public, Beck said, "we will make sure that we publicly release information and details that make the public secure on that front."

During the public comment period before the vote, critics from Black Lives Matter, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and others blasted the drone proposal.

Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition accused the commission of ignoring what he characterized as an overwhelmingly negative public response to the plan.

Just "one percent" of those who contacted the LAPD supported using the drone, while the department received more than 5,000 petition signatures from the Coalition and the ACLU and more than 600 post cards, "all saying no," said Khan.

Paula Minor of Black Lives Matter echoed Khan's criticism.

"When the information comes back and doesn’t say what you want it to say, you just interpret it the way you want it to come across," she said to the commissioners.

In announcing his support for the pilot, Commission President Steve Soboroff said that for critics with an "extreme point of view, [it] was very clear that no policy is acceptable. In other words, the issue here isn’t drones. The issue is a universal distrust and categorical distrust of the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department. I have a general trust and respect for the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department."

After first proposing the pilot program in August, the LAPD held four community meetings and received other feedback, mainly through email, according to Beck.

Based on the public feedback received so far, drone critics "for the most part, did not have a specific concern with the guidelines as drafted but rather referenced a belief that the Department could not be trusted to follow its own rules, regardless of how stringent the guidelines are designed," Beck said in his letter to the police commission.

Most of those who spoke at an Aug. 24 community meeting in Atwater Village expressed similar sentiments. "In every instance in the past, when police have gotten a new kind of weapon or device, they found reasons to use it beyond its original intention," said Sarah Eggers of Glendale.

"I can absolutely imagine a future when we have drones flying all over the skies of L.A. surveilling people," she said.

Beck said the LAPD has also received expressions of support for using drones. He noted in his letter that, while some supporters of using drones "approved of adding new technology, others thought the guidelines were too stringent and could hamper timely response to situations."

Caroline Aguirre of Eagle Rock, who supports using drones, said at the Aug. 24 community meeting that "we have so many folks that are just anti-police ... They’re just totally against everything the police do."

But Aguirre, a neighborhood watch captain who works closely with law enforcement, said the police commission should keep a tight reign on any LAPD drone.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has one unarmed drone, which it has used five times since it started deploying the aircraft in January, according to Sheriff Jim McDonnell. It can only be used for armed hostage situations, bomb squad operations and search and rescue, he has said. 

Despite the sheriff's insistence that he won't weaponize the drone or use it for surveillance of the public, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission pointed to those concerns when it voted last month to ask McDonnell to ground the vehicle.

McDonnell rejected the suggestion, arguing that the drone "is too important as a public safety tool to ground the program." He said his responsibility to protect the public "includes using whatever tools necessary and available that can save the life of a human being."

In California, approximately 30 police agencies use drones. Across the nation, nearly 350 police, sheriff, fire and emergency medical agencies have the vehicles, according to The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

This story has been updated to reflect that the LAPD said it destroyed the Draganflyer drones and to include Chief Beck's comments on the drones the department will use.