LAPD Acquires Two Drones


The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has acquired drones. According to a short press release issued by the department, "no decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used." Last year Reason TV released "Cops with Drones: Alameda Co., CA Weights Technology vs. Privacy," which takes a look at the issues surrounding law enforcement's use of these tools. 

The original release date was April 4, 2013, and the original text is below.

For a long time, drones—unmanned aircraft—were used only by the military. Now local law enforcement wants them for police work such as surveillance and search-and-rescue missions. That in turn has sparked a fierce debate over the balance between cutting-edge law enforcement technology and the privacy rights of citizens.

In February, Reason TV covered an Alameda County, California, public protection committee meeting in which Sheriff Gregory Ahern announced that he planned on using a laptop-sized drone (he prefers to call it an "unmanned aerial system") for search and rescue. "It's mission specific to search areas for lost children or elderly or Alzheimer's patients to search an area that it would be very difficult for our personnel to get to," said Sheriff Ahern.

Residents and civil liberties advocates are skeptical that drone use would remain so narrowly defined for very long. At the meeting, Linda Lye of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California took issue with the sheriff's submitted draft of a privacy policy. She said it's not specific enough about what the sheriff can and cannot do with drones.

"If the sheriff wants a drone for search and rescue then the policy should say he can only use it for search and rescue," said Lye. "Unfortunately under his policy he can deploy a drone for search and rescue, but then use the data for untold other purposes. That is a huge loophole, it's an exception that swallows the rule."

Lye urged the public protection committee not to approve the drone until stricter safeguards were in place. She pointed out that the safeguards were important because the technology will develop very quickly—and possibly to a point where citizens don't have control of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Indeed, Alameda County could serve as the baseline for police and sheriff's departments across the country, so getting it right there may affect all Americans.

The sheriff plans on applying for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly aircraft above 400 feet and plans to pay for the drone with a federal grant. MuckRock.com made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the grant made to the Department of Homeland Security in July 2012. The request revealed that Sheriff Ahern was looking to purchase a drone equipped with a something called a "Forward Looking Infrared camera." These thermal-imaging devices detect radiation given off by heat from people or animals, opening up a wide variety of concerns.

Criminal law experts such as Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School say law enforcement hasn't been given enough legal guidance on drones yet.

"If you say we're going to use it for a manhunt, what do you call a manhunt? If you say you want to use it to find missing persons, well, how far can you go with that?" says Levenson. She says that it's a matter of drawing lines because it's just too easy to become Big Brother without them. What happens, for instance, if police capture evidence of unrelated criminal activity while searching for a lost toddler? Can they use that to trigger arrests and prosecution?

Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that it is very hard to draw lines with police because, once police have a certain power, they never want to give it up. "Police always seem to want to push the boundaries as far as the law will take them and sometimes over those boundaries," says Timm.

He points to law enforcement and cell phone data as an example. The New York Times reported that in 2011, law enforcement made 1.3 million demands of phone companies for subscriber locations, text messages, and other information. Because there weren't strict privacy rules in place when mobile phones first exploded onto the market, it made it that much easier for law enforcement to obtain civilian data without search warrants or users' approval or even knowing about the requests.

"Generally there is this real friction between technology and civil liberties and we haven't really figured out how to deal with it," says Levenson. We don't know how to deal with it because technology is developing a lot faster than the law can keep up. Government cameras are everywhere these days and the laws that deal with them go back to the time of the framers of the Constitution. "What did they know about drones?" asks Levenson.

About 8 minutes.

Written and produced by Paul Detrick. Camera by Alex Manning, Zach Weissmueller, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Detrick.

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  1. Speaking of aircraft…never mind, it’s OT:

    French group drops rose petals on the Statue of Liberty to say Merci for America liberating their country from National Socialists.


    1. I assume you mean “helping to liberate” my country, mon ami.

      1. All righty then.

        1. Here you go – Free French General LeClerc enters Paris


      2. I can’t tell if you’re serious.

        1. Much like the Germans helped the Italians invade France in the first place, I imagine.

        2. D-Day, the day when a massive armada of Free-French troops (supported by a small contingency of American and Anglo/Canadian logistics forces) stormed the beaches of Normandy, and beat back the Vichy cancer… and the Nazi toadies and bootlickers that enabled them.. Read a book!

  2. What happens, for instance, if police capture evidence of unrelated criminal activity while searching for a lost toddler? Can they use that to trigger arrests and prosecution?

    Oh, don’t worry. You’ll never know the full extent to which drones are used in criminal arrests no matter how many FOIA requests you file. They’ll just recreate their “investigation” but making a parallel trail of evidence after the fact, to protect the sensitive, propriety nature of the drone from having to be disclosed in open court.

    So just relax. Everything will be made to look kosher.

  3. “Professor Richard Dawkins has questioned whether telling children fairy tales could be harmful because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism”….

    “”Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog ? it’s statistically too improbable.””


    1. Furthermore, Dawkins’ writing would be more effective than fairy tales at putting young children to sleep.

    2. What a sad little man.

      1. Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the woist is scientism.

    3. Dawkins is on my ‘never invite to the party’ list.

      On second thought, if your partys tend to last too long, you could invite him late. That would break it up and send everyone home.

      1. His keen ability to snuff out fires, due to his ability to suck out every available bit of oxygen out of the room. He’s more effective than halon gas, in that he doesn’t deplete the ozone layer…

  4. It’s almost as if the LAPD wants you to know they have drones. Like, maybe, so you’ll always be paranoid and afraid of them seeing you in the act of one of the many, MANY illegal acts you perform each day.

    Gee, I wonder who else wanted people to be afraid of being caught breaking arbitrary and unnecessary laws 24/7?

    Also, turrists.

  5. “no decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used.”

    If in the first act you have hung a drone on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.

    1. Translation: “We had to blow our ‘Homeland Security’ pot on something.”

  6. What is the normal operating altitude of these kinds of drones? It is 500-1000 ft or are we talking spy plane type stuff?

  7. I’m looking forward to the butt-hurt that will ensue, the first time they attempt to use one of these drones… and it’s hijacked and commandeered by some 12 y.o. would be hacker, and some RadioShack parts. And then the second one as well, when sent to look for the first one.

    1. I’d rather see someone with a personal drone just ram their $150 toy into this expensive clusterfuck and watch it fall burning from the sky.

      1. You could kamikaze that drone on the cheap with a $35 Harbor Freight RC plane.

  8. LAPD Acquires Two Drones

    I think the LAPD hires more than two drones per year.

  9. According to a short press release issued by the department, “no decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used.”

    Nope. We bought ’em just to spruce up the office a little.

  10. “no decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used.”

    Of course not. When the technology involved is progressing as rapidly as it is in the drone industry, it only makes sense to go ahead and buy a couple units ahead of time and hold onto them for a while. It’s not like any California cities are strapped for cash.

  11. “It’s mission specific to search areas for lost children or elderly or Alzheimer’s patients to search an area that it would be very difficult for our personnel to get to,” said Sheriff Ahern.

    Wait, you’re telling me that your department of “heroes” is unable to reach any given area that your ceding is reachable by children, the elderly, and Alzheimer’s patients, by the simple of expedient of walking there just like the 3 classes of apparent hide and go seek rock stars listed? I don’t think a couple of drones are going to solve your problems, Sheriff, if Deputy Dawg can’t make the same hike as an 85 year old woman.

    Some Estes model rockets, a section of PVC pipe, and the LA version of the Mujaheddin are ready to rock and roll.

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