By Aaron Kesel
The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners approved the police department’s pilot drone program in a 3-1 vote that will allow the LAPD to fly unarmed drones.
Despite ongoing protests, the civilian panel approved the measure with only one person, Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill, rejecting giving the LAPD access to drones.
This makes Los Angeles the largest city in the nation to undertake the testing of drones in the skies.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the LA Police Commission approved a set of policies that limits “their use to a handful of tactical situations, searches or natural disasters.” Each drone flight must also be signed off by a “high-ranking office on a case-by-case basis” in an attempt to limit abuse of the program.
Advocates say camera-mounted drones could help protect officers and others by collecting crucial information during high-risk situations or searches without risking their safety. While privacy advocates argue that drones are one step closer to an Orwellian reality of unwarranted surveillance and weaponized devices patrolling the sky.
To ease these concerns, police commissioners banned the use of mounting weapons and facial-recognition technology on small aerial devices.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the department probably would purchase two Draganflyer X6 drones; one to serve as a back up if the other breaks down, and one for use in high-risk scenarios.
Under such stipulations, only SWAT will be able to use the drones during search and rescue operations, high volatile situations, and when looking for armed suspects or someone who has shot a police officer.
The pilot program will last for a year and, after that, the commissioners will be required to review whether they want the project to continue. The Police Commission will also receive quarterly reports that will be available to the general public.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California urged its supporters to oppose the vote, noting that only a small fraction of citizens in Los Angeles expressed support for the department to use drones.
In a recent letter to the LAPD, the ACLU of Southern California wrote that the new “drone policy inadequately protects residents of Los Angeles and fails to take into account public mistrust of the LAPD’s surveillance activities.”
If you are troubled by the increased purchasing of drones by police, The Electronic Frontier Foundation has put together a list of drone questions for your local police department.