LOS ANGELES — The civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department approved a pilot program Oct. 17 for the use of drones in select tactical situations, to the chagrin of activists who contend the program could open the door to spying on residents.
Police Commission member Cynthia McClain-Hill voted against the program, while Commission President Steve Soboroff, Vice President Matthew Johnson and Commissioner Sandra Figueroa-Villa voted for it. Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith was not present for the vote.
“While I take little issue with the work done by the commissioners or with the guidelines themselves as presented, I am not satisfied that this department has done what it should do and needs to do in order to build the trust that is required to support the implementation of this technology,” McClain-Hill said.
Speaking over a rowdy crowd and raising his voice to be heard, Soboroff said he did trust the department enough to move forward with the drone program.
“The issue here [among the opposition] is a universal distrust and categorical distrust of the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department, and I will close by saying that I have a general trust and respect of the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department, and I will vote for this policy as a member,” Soboroff said.
The panel’s vote prompted an outcry from opponents, some of whom marched outside the LAPD headquarters and into the intersection of First and Main streets, blocking traffic. Police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly, ordering the group out of the street. Several protesters were seen being handcuffed and led away by police, although it was unclear if they were only being detained to move them out of the street or if they would be arrested.
Two weeks ago, the commission approved guidelines for the one-year drone pilot program. The guidelines were then posted on the department’s website for two weeks to get more public feedback before the final vote.
The commission first heard a presentation on the guidelines in August, and the department held four public meetings to get feedback.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission recently voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of that department’s drone program. But that vote is not binding on the department, and Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the agency will continue using the devices.
According to the guidelines the Police Commission approved, drones will 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 will not be weaponized or used during surveillance, and their use will have to be approved on a case-by-case basis. The commission also added several more requirements before the final vote, including that facial recognition technology cannot be used on the drones.
The LAPD’s pursuit of a pilot program marks a reversal from three years ago, when it abandoned the idea of using drones in the face of protests from activists.
McLain-Hill asked LAPD Chief Charlie Beck why he had changed his mind.
Beck gave several reasons, including that other departments around the country have started using drones “and we have been able to see what fruit that bore, so we have been able to put some professional practices in front of us that have paved the way.”
Members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other civil rights organizations have been vocal about their opposition to the program over concerns that “mission creep” will lead to the devices one day being armed or used for surveillance to infringe on privacy rights.
A long line of public speakers took turns denouncing the program and the commissioners for considering its approval. Some of the speakers yelled at the top of their lungs at the commission, and audience members frequently disrupted the meeting with chants and yelling.
“We know that this police force cannot be trusted. We know that this police force if given a pencil would turn it into a weapon. We know this police force wants more money to oppress and control communities, that is what they are here for,” said Greg Akili, a community activist. “And if they get drones, they will ultimately turn them into weapons.”
LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala previously told the commission that of the 1,675 emails it received on the program before the guidelines were approved, only 6 percent were positive and in support of the program.
After posting the guidelines and receiving feedback over the last two weeks, Girmala said the department received 9 positive emails out of more than 1,000, and added that of the negative emails, 132 appeared unique and the rest appeared auto-generated.
The groups opposed to the program have also charged that because the emails the LAPD received on the program were overwhelmingly negative, the commission is not interested in the public feedback it is receiving and is just going through the motions.
“This is an important issue. Unfortunately, the people that are going to make the decision don’t see it as an important issue,” Akili said. “They are going to make a decision based on not what we say, or what’s been said by the public. They are gong to make the decision because they are here to protect the institution and the people in it.”
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.