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The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has once again proposed the use of drone technology via a one-year pilot program, despite public objections. Back in 2014, a pair of drones donated to the LAPD were stored away to an unknown fate due to several protests. Citizens of Los Angeles, many of whom were already concerned about aggressive police tactics, were concerned about using drones for surveillance.

Beck said that he wants public feedback and approval first before flying them, stating, “I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment.”

Seattle police experienced similar criticism when they attempted to use drone devices. Then-Mayor Mike McGinn pulled the plug on the program before it had the chance to officially begin. Recently, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department also faced backlash after using a drone to help deputies oversee hostage crises, arson scenes, and bomb threats; activists and a majority of the civilian oversight body criticized this their use, despite the department’s promise to not use drones to monitor or track residents.

Elsewhere across the country, law enforcement welcomed the idea of drones as valuable technology that could monitor armed suspects, find missing hikers, and other unmanned duties that would protect citizens and enhance officers’ safety. In fact, over 350 public safety departments nationwide have already acquired drones. However, privacy advocates and police critics condemn the use of what they believe to be inappropriate – and potentially illegal – surveillance devices, with the possibility of military-grade, weaponized drones flying over civilian population.

This fear of police militarization prompted public protests from about three dozen activists last month, denouncing drone use before LAPD had the chance to put their proposal formally to the Police Commission. “Drone-free LAPD!” they chanted. “No drones L.A.!”

If the Police Commission approves the LAPD’s plan to test a small drone, measuring a foot long by 7½ inches tall, such devices may help gather vital information without putting officers at risk. This may include hostage situations, bomb scares, shootings, standoffs with barricaded suspects, and the like. Drones are actually useful technology in events like this, and why, despite the protests, the Commission will probably approve their use in a limited scope of activities.

Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala stated the LAPD would create strict criteria before flying the drones, and each rule requires approval from a high-ranking department official, in addition to written reports and documentation.

When revisiting potential drone use, Girmala said the LAPD was very careful about it, as they did not want to risk the public’s trust for something that is “already controversial in our community.” She explained that if approved, drone use “had to be very methodical and … thoughtful.”

Public Safety and Drones

Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said that it’s often how a department acts and explains drone use to the public that widely affects how local residents react to them. According to him, many other agencies have successfully adopted the technology without much public reaction.

Charlie Beck LAPD in parade.
Charlie Beck, Chief LAPD

He explained that the word “drone” alone creates an implication, as people have associated it with the thought that military drones are being used by the police – a very sensitive topic in the United States where separation of powers prevents the military operations upon citizens.

The National Conference of State Legislatures revealed that at least 18 states adopted rules requiring law enforcement agencies to acquire warrants before drone usage, especially for surveillance or search purposes. The California Legislature created a similar proposal, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014.

Some states’ actions, however, have only added to the mistrust of drones. In 2015, North Dakota became the first state to legalize police drones, ones that had devices like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas. Connecticut attempted a similar bill that would make weaponized drones legal for police, but eventually decided against it.

Girmala addressed these worries, assuring that LAPD’s drones will not be weaponized at all, and that officers require a search warrant signed by a judge whenever necessary. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck backed this after the commission meeting, stating that these drones are essentially “just another set of eyes.”

LAPD reportedly received two Draganflyer X6 drones from Seattle police – the ones they had to get rid of when they received major criticisms from concerned Seattleites. Even so, Beck said that he wants public feedback and approval first before flying them. “I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment,” he said at the time.

After years of being kept locked in the LAPD inspector general’s office, the drones in question were destroyed earlier this week as they were obsolete and therefore are not what the department is thinking of using. In addition, she said the LAPD still has not looked at specific models they want to test in the pilot program.

Girmala had told the Police Commission that SWAT officers would use the drones, to which many opponents present reacted negatively to. Jamie Garcia, a Stop LAPD Spying Coalition member, wanted to “drop the idea” and stated that they will “fight it to the very end.”

Activists have publicly renounced the LAPD’s drone use, and said the fear of being observed that way was alarming to many residents who felt targeted by the police.

Melanie Ochoa, an American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California attorney, said that drones “represent a significant threat to privacy [and] … should only be approved after a robust public discussion.”

The LAPD have been pioneers when it comes to public safety, becoming the forerunners in equipment (helicopters) and tactics (SWAT). With this in mind, overseeing and taking care of a city just shy of 500 square miles, the use of drones is, in theory, an efficient way to access and respond to crime reports without limiting themselves to going on foot and via patrol cars. Aerial access is fast, automated, and – to an extent – unmanned.

This heated discussion caused the union to give out a bold statement. “It’s time for the conspiracy theorists and professional protesters to stop obstructing every effort we make to keep Angelenos safe,” they said. Girmala tried to reassure that the pro-drone LAPD understand and respect citizens’ concerns. “I believe … that time will prove that we are being as careful and respectful of peoples’ rights as humanly possible,” she affirmed.