Alameda County Sheriff Wants to Be First in State to Have Very Own Drone

Monday, October 22, 2012
Drone, DraganFlyer X6 (photo:

Drones, those unmanned aerial machines flying regular deadly missions in Afghanistan, North Africa and the Middle East, are slowly being deployed by U.S. law enforcement agencies for crime fighting and other assorted chores―like surveillance.

The Seattle Police Department has one. So does the North Little Rock Police Department, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Now, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department has submitted a proposal to become the first law enforcement agency in California to have a drone of its own.

The Alameda proposal, obtained by the website MuckRock via the Freedom of Information Act, is detailed in a memo about a Department of Homeland Security grant request for $30,000 to pay for one Draganfly Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) with live video downlink and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR). The memo put the cost of the vehicle at considerably less than the generally accepted cost of $50,000-$100,000.

“A UAS would be valuable to assist with barricaded suspects, surveillance (investigative and tactical), perimeters, intelligence gathering, rough terrain, suspicious persons, large crowd control disturbances, etc,” according to the memo.

Alameda has not yet secured the financing, or permits from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to proceed.

While law enforcement agencies emphasize tactical uses for drones in crime fighting and emergency response situations, documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation indicate that early drone testing, development and deployment have focused on surveillance. The aircraft can carry infrared cameras with zoom capabilities.

Civil libertarians have raised questions about privacy issues related to surveillance from the sky while commercial pilots and airlines maintain that drones pose a serious potential threat to aviation. There is currently a general lack of federal oversight and no systems in place to integrate the drones into existing air traffic control operations.

Congress has ordered the FAA to develop safety regulations that would allow public agencies and commercial operators to operate drones by 2015. 

Not all drone requests are approved. The FAA rejected a pitch from the Ogden (Utah) Police Department, which wanted to deploy a blimp for “nocturnal surveillance of . . . high crime areas of Ogden City.” The FAA said the blimp posed an “unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”   

A San Francisco Police Department proposal for $100,000 to acquire a “remotely pilot vehicle” (RPV) and train operators was rejected in July by the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, according to Freedom of Information documents obtained by the website MuckRock. The department was hoping to be airborne over the Bay by the end of 2013.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Alameda County Sheriff Seeks Drone for Thermal Imaging, Surveillance (by Shawn Musgrave, MuckRock)

Alameda County Sheriff Seeks Drone to Fight Crime (Associated Press)

Privacy Issues Raised in Alameda County's Possible Use of Drones (by Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times)

Alameda County Sheriff Just Might Employ Unmanned Drones to Catch Criminals (by Coburn Palmer, SF Weekly)

Police to Use Drones for Spying on Citizens (by Jason Koebler, US News)

These Drones Are Made For Watchin' (by Jennifer Lynch, Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Here’s Who’s Buying Drones: Are Local Cops Watching You from the Sky? (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

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