Drones

Let Police Operate Drones for Emergencies—but with Full Transparency

Activists fear secret surveillance. Push for firmly enforced rules instead of bans.

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Police drone
Alexlmx / Dreamstime

The Los Angeles Police Department has been given permission by its civilian commission to start testing drone use in the city, despite significant opposition by citizen activists and civil rights groups.

By a vote of 3-1 yesterday, with opponents protesting outside, the Los Angeles Police Commission approved a limited program to introduce drones (now often called Unmanned Aerial Systems) to the force.

How limited? LAPD Chief Charlie Beck says they're going to purchase just two drones—one to operate and one for backup. Not exactly the start of a massive city surveillance system. The rules for using the drones at the moment are strict.

Via the Los Angeles Times:

Under those rules, only SWAT officers will be allowed to fly drones during a handful of specific, high-risk situations. They can also be used during search and rescue operations, or when looking for armed suspects who have "superior firepower," an "extraordinary tactical advantage" or who are suspected of shooting at an officer.

Each flight must be approved by a high-ranking officer. Any request to fly a drone — whether approved or not — will be documented and reviewed. The Police Commission will also receive quarterly reports that will be made public.

For the most part, there are no objections to the rules. Rather, groups like the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) don't trust the drone operations will be as limited as the police say and mission creep is inevitable. Staff Attorney Mohammad Tajsar warned in a letter:

[T]he LAPD's proposed drone policy does not sufficiently protect the privacy and civil rights of Los Angeles residents. Although the policy circumscribes the permissible uses of drones to eight different situations (including "active shooter incidents" and "perimeter searches of armed criminals"), it does not appropriately define these situations and does not specifically prohibit the department from using them in other circumstances. As a result, the Commission's approval of the draft policy likely opens the door to a broader range of permissible uses of drones at later dates—particularly when the policy does not require the LAPD to return to the Commission for subsequent approval of additional permissible uses.

The overwhelming majority of the correspondence the commission received has been in opposition, which makes some sense. This opposition is very much a reflection of a lack of trust in the Los Angeles Police Department. Just this past fiscal year, the department paid out $81 million in settlements for negligent or criminal police behavior. The city borrowed $70 million to keep from having to dip into reserve funds to pay its litigation costs.

Does mission creep justify a full ban? If using a drone could reduce risks to police and at the same time not put citizens at greater risk (which is what happens when we allow police to militarize their gear), it's worth doing. Technological solutions that help protect police officers are preferable to some other alternatives, like expanding hate crime laws that increase criminal penalties even further for people who target police.

Rather than a ban, consider approaching police drone policy with full transparency. Treat them like body cameras and don't allow police departments to decide the rules for their use. When police break the rules, punish them and throw out any cases that involve inappropriate drone surveillance.

The LAPD also has problems with transparency, which may be why the ACLU is unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt. Beck has put into place a policy (and the city has defended it) refusing to consider police body camera footage to be public records unless a court ordered them to release it. The concern that the LAPD would expand drone use without the public ever knowing about or being able to respond to it is very real.

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  1. Wouldn’t fully transparent drones be dangerous?

    1. Wonder Woman doesn’t seem to run into any problems with her jet.

  2. Not exactly the start of a massive city surveillance system.

    Do you feel yourself getting dumber when you type something like this? The only way you’re definitively right is if you pretty much say that the massive city surveillance system is already well underway.

    1. We should rarely give any leeway to police.

      1. Change “rarely” to “never”!

    2. It would be a much better idea to give authorization to deploy drones to the Fire Department, and limit their use to search and rescue.

  3. Rather than a ban, consider approaching police drone policy with full transparency. Treat them like body cameras and don’t allow police departments to decide the rules for their use. When police break the rules, punish them and throw out any cases that involve inappropriate drone surveillance.

    Because if law enforcement is known for anything, it’s transparency, well-defined rules, and serious consequences for those who break them.

    1. They have some well defined rules with consequences. Don’t steal from the department. Use deadly force when a peasant fails to obey. Other than that…

  4. Is there any recorded history of any police force, local or national, that has lived up to the promises it made?

    1. When they promise to find the black guy who committed some heinous crime?

    2. or who are suspected of shooting at an officer.

      Technically, anybody fits under the definition of ‘anybody they think has fired a gun in the direction of a police officer’.

  5. When police break the rules, punish them…

    Haaaaaaaaaaaa ha ha ha ha ha! Whew! That’s a good one!

    1. Procedures were followed.

  6. How did that work out for SWAT teams? Weren’t those supposed to be limited to exceptional circumstances?

    1. I fail to see the intrinsic distinction between a drone and a stoplight speeding traffic camera.

      1. Traffic cameras have been shown to have unintended consequences. They increase rear end collisions. They are manipulated to increase the number of tickets issued.

        Traffic cameras are actually an excellent example of why we shouldn’t allow drones.

  7. >Does mission creep justify a full ban? If using a drone could reduce risks to police and at the same time not put citizens at greater risk (which is what happens when we allow police to militarize their gear), it’s worth doing.

    This is a false dichotomy. The drones will lead to an increased use of SWAT teams. I can’t predict exactly how, but that is my expectation.

    1. This is a false dichotomy.

      And/or a stolen base or two. The sky above LA doesn’t belong to the LAPD. Even if it belonged to the LAPD their legal ability to fill it and collect anything there as they see fit is highly questionable.

      Can’t wait to see what happens when a drone gets blasted from private property.

      1. Can’t wait to see what happens when a drone gets blasted from private property.

        That drone will be treated the same as an officer, just like they do with dogs now. So shooting one down will be result in being charged with the murder of a police officer.

        1. Why even bother to shoot it down when you can just jam them with simple radio gear and the damn thing will just fall out of the sky or continue on it’s last vector until it’s either out of range or crashes?

          1. I’m currently working on a cheap jammer/disabler device. It combines a 1 megawatt microwave burst that will burn out the radio control, combined with a high-intensity tactical laser to blind the camera chip. It also has a 300 decibel high-frequency audio device to take out any microphone. So far, I’ve spent less than $500 on the development.

        2. And they’ll probably give the drone a funeral with full honors.

          1. Give a full pension to the widowed pilot.

  8. RE:
    Let Police Operate Drones for Emergencies?but with Full Transparency

    Have the police operate with full transparency?
    Where do you think you’re at?
    America?

  9. Drone: Comply, citizen!

    Citizen: I’m complying!

    Drone: [launches missile]

    1. Serves the citizen right for back talking the drone.

  10. You know why the government didn’t sift through all our emails and phone calls in the past?

    No, it wasn’t because of the Fourth Amendment. It’s because once it became technologically possible and was no longer economically prohibitive, they reinterpreted the Fourth Amendment to make sifting through all our emails and phone calls constitutional.

    The only real barriers against the government using surveillance to infringe on our real rights (of which our legal rights are only a pale shadow) are technological, economic, and the willingness of average Americans to hold politicians accountable for violating our rights.

    If the barriers against drones being used to violate our rights are no longer technological or economic, I’m happy to see any public opposition to the technology being used by government–especially in such a technologically advancing society where apathy about abuses of individuals and their rights in the name of utilitarianism is rampant among the elite.

    Don’t these stupid rednecks know we’re trying to help them?!

    1. Anyone know where I can find an email service that is exclusively domiciled ex-US?

      1. ProtonMail.ch

  11. Oh yeah, this time we can trust them.

  12. How about instead of giving these to SWAT teams, who if we recall were only ever intended to be used “…during a handful of specific, high-risk situations.” who are now used for almost everything, we say ‘what possible use do these serve that your helicopters don’t already fill’?

    1. It’s really hard to unobtrusively photograph civilian titties from a helicopter, yo.

  13. The police have a long and storied history of using new technology responsibly within the limitations of the constitution.

    I’m sure this will end well.

  14. Sounds like it’s time for a remake of the movie Blue Thunder.

  15. Scott, “full transparency” doesn’t exist with governments and what little is there takes YEARS to come out. They will lie and lose paperwork constantly. This is a bad idea with, literally, zero benefits to the citizenry.

  16. Shooting clay pigeons exclusively was getting boring anyway.

  17. Transparency. What a concept. These are people who have their very own “bill of rights” that overrides any obligation for transparency or accountability. So, yeah, the LAPD with drones. Good luck with that.

  18. Welcome to jammer-buy store buy cell phone jammer or drone jammer.

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