At Tuesday’s meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the Los Angeles Police Department said it wanted to test the use of drones in a one-year pilot program. The announcement was met with immediate resistance from a group of activists who gathered to denounce the use of any drones by the department.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the department was given two Draganflyer X6 drones by the Seattle Police Department in 2014. The department intended to fly the drones for “narrow and prescribed uses,” but less than a week after they were received, Police Chief Charlie Beck said the department would not use them until it received public feedback and approval from the police commission.
After being locked away in the office of the LAPD’s inspector general for three years, the drones were destroyed earlier this week because they were reportedly “obsolete” and not what the department is considering using now.
Assistant Police Chief Beatrice Girmala told the Times that if approved by the police commission, the department is looking to fly a small, 7.5-inch-tall drone that could help gather crucial information as hostage standoffs, barricaded suspects, bomb scares or active-shooter situations unfold. It would be a way for the department to monitor such situations without putting officers at risk.
Girmala added that the department would draw up strict criteria before flying the drones, and each use would require approval from a high-ranking official from within the department. Each use would also be documented in a written report to show that the rules were followed.
Girmala also told the Times that the department will have public meetings and draft guidelines for drone usage that must be approved by the police commission before the drones could be flown. Additionally, the department will have to receive certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, and officers will have to be trained in how to use the drones.
Dan Gettinger, who is co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told the Times that the way in which a department approaches using a drone, and how it explains that usage to the public, has a direct impact on how local residents react.
“People are concerned because they associate the drones that police might be using with the drones that are being used by the military,” Gettinger told the Times. “The word ‘drone’ just has that implication.”
Gettinger’s center published a study earlier this year that indicates almost 350 public safety departments in the U.S. have acquired drones, and of those, nearly half have acquired them within the last year. Gettinger said that skeptics have questioned not just how police use drones today, but how they will be used in the future as well.
There are lots of questions on the balance between privacy and public safety. There are also issues regarding the use of weaponized drones.
According to the Times, North Dakota became the first state to legalize police use of drones armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and Tasers in 2015. Earlier this year, the state of Connecticut considered a similar bill that would allow police to use weaponized drones there as well.
Where do we draw the line?
Is this really an issue of increasing public safety, or is this an issue of arming an already militarized police force with more tools with which to indiscriminately be judge and jury when it comes to everyday public citizens?
And also, this, from the Times:
Opponents of police drones were not satisfied by the LAPD’s pledge to use them only under strict rules. In addition to expressing fears about surveillance and the militarization of police, drone opponents said Tuesday that they worried about “mission creep”—that police would quietly expand the use of drones beyond what is first allowed. The activists said they didn’t trust the LAPD to use the drones appropriately and said the fear of being watched by the LAPD from the sky was alarming to residents who already feel targeted by police.
Should police departments be able to use drones? I’m interested in what you think.