LOS ANGELES — The civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department unanimously approved guidelines Oct. 3 for a drone program the LAPD wants to create despite opposition from activists who consider the technology a threat to civil liberties.
The debate over the LAPD’s use of drones began three years ago when the department acquired two of the devices, which it ultimately decided against using in the face of protests from activists fearing surveillance uses. But the department reversed course and in August presented the Board of Police Commissioners with a plan to create a pilot drone program.
The newly approved guidelines do not give a green light to the creation of the program. After posting the guidelines on the department’s website for two weeks and receiving more public feedback, the board is scheduled to vote on final approval of the pilot program.
“Our challenge is to create a policy that strikes a balance, that promotes public safety and does not infringe on public policy rights,” Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith said. “The best way to do that is through a strong policy, that creates maximum transparency, accountability and oversight, and I believe this proposed policy does that.”
Last week, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of the Sheriff’s Department recently enacted drone program, although Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the program would continue.
The Police Commission first heard a presentation on the guidelines for the proposed LAPD program in August, and the department held four public meetings to get feedback.
LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala told the commissioners that 1,675 emails were sent to the department and 95 of those were in support of using drones.
Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition pointed to the negative emails, as well as 3,500 signatures his group said it had gathered in opposition to the program and 1,900 signatures the ACLU said it had also gathered, as evidence that the board was not interested in the public feedback it was receiving.
He also said the overwhelming feedback at the four meetings was from people in opposition to the program.
“Only seven percent of the people in the emails agreed with the department,” Khan said. “All four meetings where it was overwhelming rejection. The sheriff’s civilian oversight rejects the drones and demands that they be grounded, and this body, this supposedly civilian oversight body, continues with the same practice,” Khan said.
Mohammad Tajsar, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties of Southern California, also told the board it was not listening to the feedback it was receiving.
“Responsiveness means not just to allow the public to speak, but to listen to the feedback when it gets it,” Tajsar said.
He said the feedback wasn’t just in opposition to parts of the program, “but it is opposition to end the entire program.”
According to the approved guidelines, drones would be used in a limited capacity, including high-risk tactical operations, barricaded armed suspect responses, hostage rescues and situations involving threats of exposure to hazardous materials and the need to detect explosive devices.
The drones would not be weaponized, and their use would have to be approved on a case-by-case basis.
Members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! Campaign and other groups held a news conference before the meeting to denounce the potential program.
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 in August those two drones have since been destroyed.
The groups opposed to the drones say that although the current guidelines are limited, they could be changed later on to allow surveillance, invasions of privacy or end up being weaponized.
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.