Drones

Police Department Sorry It Got Caught Denying Owning Drone

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The San Jose Police Department (SJPD) is doing the pseudo-apology boogie this week in hopes that the hounding from transparency advocate Shawn Musgrave will finally stop. What are they so sorry for? That they got caught. They repeatedly dodged records requests about buying or even planning to buy a camera equipped-drone. 

Or, as they put it:

In hindsight, SJPD should have done a better job of communicating the purpose and acquisition of the [unmanned aircraft systems] device to our community. The community should have the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns before we move forward with this project. To this end, we will first develop a community outreach plan before we take steps to deploy the UAS.

How thoughtful. How the SJPD has changed its tune, too. Until last month, they were telling Musgrave, who has been chronicling the saga on Vice and the FOIA blog MuckRock, that they didn't have no stinkin' drone and didn't know a thing about them.

It started back in December 2012, when "an analyst within the SJPD Research and Development Unit specifically responded that the department had no records regarding research into drones or plans to use unmanned aerial vehicles."

In fact, Musgrave later determined that they must have already submitted their proposal to acquire one a month prior.

And, although the city of San Jose received over $400,000 from the Department of Homeland Security, "including $8,000 to purchase a drone for [SJPD's] bomb squad" in May 2013, they dodged another records request that October, replying that

Our Department does not use aerial drones, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), unmanned aerials (UAs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and/or unmanned aerial systems (UASs), nor does our Fiscal Unit have any records related to these items

The upkeepers of the law got their 1.5 pound hexacopter in January 2014, but it wasn't until July 15, when Musgrave compiled so much damning evidence of his own and information extracted from an American Civil Liberties Union request, that the cops acknowledged the purchase.

Even after all this, though, they can't keep their story straight. Their apology says that they they have no intention of using the drone until consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

That may be true, but it contradicts the department's line of thought up until that point. From an internal memo within the department: "The UAV is not a drone. Drones are regulated by the FAA. The FAA doesn't regulate our device." Musgrave notes that while the FAA has been pretty opaque about what people can and can't do with their remote-controlled flying things, "in this case, the FAA has long made clear that all government agencies require authorization to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle in domestic airspace, regardless of the particular body type or where the unit was purchased." Well, uh, that's awkward.

Read about more MuckRock FOIA work here