Back in February of 2013, The Seattle Times reported that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn ordered the Seattle Police Department to abandon its drone program following pushback from local protesters. Consequently, the city donated its Draganflyer X-6 drones to the Los Angeles Police Department back in May of this year. Now, civil liberties advocates in the City of Angels are equally concerned that police use of drones will escalate beyond the boundaries of the Constitution and have launched a protest similar to the one that succeeded in Seattle.
According to NBC Los Angeles, a vocal and large group of protesters representing the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition demonstrated outside of the Los Angeles City Hall on Thursday morning, chanting “drone-free LAPD.” The group intended to and successfully delivered a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti requesting that the city abandon its plans to use the spy technology. Protesters are concerned that the silent and inexpensive nature of the drones will lead to a future in which the LAPD engages in widespread warrantless snooping on citizens.
LAPD spokesman Bruce Borihahn said that Los Angeles’ drone program still awaits approval by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, a civilian police commission, and local civil rights groups. He also indicated that a federal agency is storing the drones until proper approval is attained. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a statement in June tepidly thanking officials for being open about the fact that the city received the drones, but cautioning that actually using them might harm citizens’ privacy more than it improves security for the community.
In a statement on June 5, Police Chief Charlie Beck left open the possibility that the LAPD might abandon its drone program before it starts, if there is enough community pushback. “We are going to thoroughly vet the public’s opinion on the use of aerial surveillance platforms by the LA Police Department before they are ever deployed… If we don’t have the public’s confidence in the use of these systems, they won’t be used.” He expressed that officials are working with the ACLU and other civil liberties groups to determine if workable policies can be employed to limit the potential for drones to be used by police in a manner that might abuse citizens’ privacy. Chief Beck gave manhunts and standoffs as examples of the limited situations that might call for the use of an unmanned drone.
During a June appearance on KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO that was reported on by CBS Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti gave his position on using the drones, “I’ve asked them to be grounded until we have a policy, until we have community input. I don’t want these things up in the air until we know for sure they’re not going to be used against innocent folks.” Going further, he said, “I don’t want to have UAVs flying over the city looking at the general population, trying to find crime. That’s creepy, that’s not the place for these things.”
Despite the fact that officials have acknowledged the privacy implications associated with the use of drones, protesters simply want them grounded out of the fear that the temptation will be too great for law enforcement officers to expand their use over time. Given the statements made by officials and the recent victory by Seattle’s anti-drone activists, it would seem that, if there is enough pushback from voices in the community, LAPD’s drone program may ultimately end up facing the same fate that befell Seattle’s.
It is worth noting that the LAPD also recently complained when activist Daniel Saulmon flew a drone over the Hollywood police station, alleging, without pressing charges, that he had committed a form of trespassing.