Back in February 2013, Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) deputy chief for counterterrorism and special operations Michael Downing told the L.A. Times that his department was “taking baby steps” toward buying and deploying drones, waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue guidelines for their use and other contentious issues to be decided.
Nothing has been decided, but the wait may almost be over anyway.
The LAPD arranged to pick up a couple of drones from the Seattle Police Department as “gifts” when Washington city's aerial program was grounded—before it got airborne—by an irate public that complained about safety and privacy.
Seattle officials offered to restrict use of the drones to emergency conditions, like bomb threats, fires and hostage situations, to quell fears they would be used for general surveillance of innocent citizens. But the arguments didn’t fly and in February of last year the Seattle police said they would return the drones, purchased with federal funds, to the vendor.
But don’t call them drones. LAPD won’t. They are “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” UAV for short, which sounds more like a recreational vehicle than a pernicious surveillance device.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out, “They can be used for completely surreptitious surveillance that a helicopter could never perform―and could pose particular threats to privacy when combined with other technology like facial recognition software, infrared night vision cameras, or microphones to record personal conversations.”
Those are also cool things that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will give local governments for free through grants, and some of them come built into the drones. But LAPD said in a press release Friday it had no intention of using drones to spy on people―just “narrow and prescribed uses”―and may not use them at all.
One of the reasons is the L.A. Police Commission has yet to vet the acquisition in a public forum, and the drones are in federal custody.
Federal law (pdf) anticipates the introduction of drones into U.S. airspace by September 30, 2015. The FAA is supposed to have operational regulations in place three months later. So cities, counties and states are lining up on the runway for a chance to participate.
The California Assembly passed drone legislation in January, AB 1327, that is in the Senate now. The bill empowers law enforcement to use UAVs, with certain restrictions, but critics say it leaves “a drone-sized loophole that will allow police to use drones basically whenever they want.”
Sheriffs in the counties of Alameda and San Mateo made a play for drones last year, both of which ended after noisy objections were raised. But the issue is not going away. There is a burgeoning drone industry that wants to add civilian production to its military business, although perhaps not as heavily weaponized, and a security-focused federal government with money to spend.