LAPD presents drone pilot program at police commission meeting

Three years after acquiring a pair of drones that it chose not to deploy in response to protests about potential surveillance uses, the Los Angeles Police Department took its first step Wednesday toward starting a drone pilot program.

LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala presented the department's plan for a pilot program for limited use of drones to the Board of Police Commissioners, which was not required to vote on the pilot program today and took no action.

Girmala said the department plans to hold a series of public meetings to get feedback on the program, then draft official guidelines before bringing the pilot program back to the commissioners for approval.

The LAPD's move comes weeks after a majority of Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight commissioners signaled they wanted Sheriff Jim McDonnell to stop flying a drone used in law enforcement operations, and as local organizations continue to express concerns about law enforcement drones.

Girmala said the guidelines the LAPD is considering would create limited uses for drones that would respect 1st and 4th Amendment rights and that the devices would not be used for general surveillance. Criteria for their use would include high-risk tactical operations, risk of exposure to hazardous materials, detection of explosive devices, barricaded armed suspect responses and hostage rescues, Girmala said.

The use of drones would also have be approved on a case-by-case basis and they would not be weaponized, Girmala said.

The LAPD's possible use of drones is opposed by some civil rights organizations, and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and the Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! Campaign held a protest and news conference before the Police Commission meeting. Protesters also shut down the meeting twice by chanting and yelling, and the room had to be cleared of spectators both times by officers.

"How can we trust drones in the hands of a police department whose police chief last week said they did not even have a management system for cadets? Think about that,'' said Pete White of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. "They want to fly drones, but they did not have a management system for our children in their so-called leadership development program.''

White was referring to the recent arrest of seven LAPD youth cadets for stealing squad cars, which triggered tighter control policies announced last week by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

A pair of Draganflyer X6 drones were given to the LAPD by the city of Seattle in 2014, but were never deployed. The drones were put into storage, but Girmala told the commissioners those two drones have since been destroyed.

Police Chief Charlie Beck said in 2014 that the drones could be used during tactical events such as manhunts and standoffs. But he also said the department planned to work closely with the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure the drones would not infringe on individual privacy rights. The chief in 2014 also defended accepting the drones, and said such devices are already being used by private citizens, businesses and sports teams.

A representative of the ACLU of Southern California told the Police Commission that the civil rights organization was never consulted.

"First, I want to restate that the ACLU did not work in 2014 to assist LAPD in developing a drone policy,'' said Melanie Ochoa, an ACLU staff attorney.

Even if the drones are initially confined to narrow uses, they could easily undergo "mission creep'' and be used to invade the privacy of the city's residents, according to some of the groups opposed to them.

"Drones represent a significant threat to privacy, one that is very difficult to contain once drones are deployed for any use whatsoever,'' Ochoa said.

Speaking at the news conference, Jonathan Perez of the Immigrant Youth Coalition said, "They're trying to build a system that is militarized that is going to target us without us even doing anything, just for the color of our skin or for the matter in which we came to this country.''

After Girmala's presentation, Commission President Matt Johnson said, "Technology has the potential to save lives. I know that unmanned aerial devices fall into that category. Our challenge is going to be to develop strong policies and oversight, to govern this program, to govern against misuse and mission creep.''

The Los Angeles City Council cleared the way in June for the city's fire department to begin using drones. A Los Angeles Fire Department report addressed the issue of privacy concerns and said the devices would not be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement.

Despite the assurance that the LAFD drones would not be used for surveillance or police operations, the ACLU and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition still objected.

"We reject the use of these drones because what you have, even in this policy document, is gaping holes for mission creep. So the issue is not if, but when, and we have seen that happen over and over again,'' said Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.

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