LA County Commits to Oversight of Sheriff’s Drones

LOS ANGELES (CN) – For one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies, drones fight crime and provide vital tactical information to protect officers and the public. For civil rights groups, the unmanned aircraft raise concerns about the militarization of police and an expansion of a surveillance state.

Los Angeles County’s political leaders on Tuesday weighed those contrasting perspectives at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown LA by approving oversight of the sheriff department’s new drone program which was unveiled on Jan. 12.

“The purpose of the motion was to help provide a layer of transparency,” said First District Supervisor Hilda Solis, a Democrat who introduced the motion. “While I’m hearing from the community they have various concerns, many of us understand that. And I think this is at least one step in the direction to provide more transparency for the public as well as for the Board of Supervisors.”

Los Angeles County’s powerful five-member board unanimously approved the motion after several civil rights activists voiced their opposition to the sheriff’s department introduction of the technology earlier this month.

The Office of the Inspector General will now review the drone program and submit a report to the Civilian Oversight Commission. The commission will ask the sheriff’s department and the public for additional information and present its findings to the board.

While the public welcomed Solis’ move for more transparency, many speakers pleaded for caution on Tuesday.

Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said the county should dismantle the program and warned that “mission creep” could encourage the department to expand the drones in ways that allowed authorities to spy on citizens.

“We have really very deep concern that the drones should not operate at all. They should be grounded,” Khan said. “I think it’s extremely, extremely critical that this issue doesn’t get lost into reports, because what in essence is happening is that people on the street are looking at it quite frankly as a development of local air forces because the drones signify violence. The drones signify brutality. And as much as the sheriff has said that it will be used for limited purposes, we know that mission creep is real.”

Jaime Garcia said authorities have weaponized drones. She was concerned the devices could be used beyond their stated purpose, to protect the deputies and the public.

“I completely reject the use of drones over the skies of Los Angeles, the nation and worldwide,” Garcia told the board.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department unveiled the small spider-like drones and touted benefits to law enforcement. Capped with a white shell emblazoned with a sheriff’s star and “rescue” in uppercase red lettering, the drone is equipped with an onboard camera. Officers pilot the device with a remote control used in conjunction with an iPad. The drones have a battery life of 20 minutes and cost $10,000 each.

The sheriff’s department says the drones will help in search and rescue, disaster and bomb-squad operations and in situations where deputies could come into harm’s way, including incidents involving hazardous materials, arson fires and hostages.

Using drones, officers have a tactical advantage that could protect them in incidents where armed suspects are hiding behind barricades. Drones could survey these barricades before officers make an approach.

“The dangers of law enforcement can never be eliminated,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a prepared statement last week.  “However, this technology can assist us in reducing the impact of risks on personnel and allow us to perform operations to enhance public safety.”

Such pronouncements are unlikely to dampen civil rights groups. Seattle donated two of the drones to the LAPD but they remain unused after a public backlash.

Drones have been used in other law enforcement agencies around the nation. In 2015, North Dakota passed a bill that would allow law enforcement to weaponize the technology with Tasers and tear gas.

Democratic supervisor Janice Hahn said shared the public’s concerns and introduced a “friendly” amendment that would require the inspector general to submit the report to supervisors at the same time it is submitted to the commission.

The sheriff’s department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Capt. Jack Ewell told KPPC that the device would not be used for “random surveillance.”