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Civilian board authorizes to use of drones for LAPD

October 19, 2017  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Civilian board authorizes to use of drones for LAPD

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On Tuesday, the civilian board that supervises the Los Angeles Police Department authorized a drone pilot program — several months after the department first presented a limited plan to utilized the technology.

Approval of the program by the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners proceeded despite resistance from activists who believe the technology is a threat to civil liberties and after only 6% of the 1,675 emails that authorities received about the program showed support for it.

Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill voted in opposition to the program, while Commission President Steve Soboroff, VP Matthew Johnson, and Commissioner Sandra Figueroa-Villa voted in favor of it.

The panel’s vote led to an outcry from opponents, some of whom protested outside the LAPD headquarters and into the intersections, stopping traffic. Authorities announced that the gathering was an unlawful assembly, and ordered the group to get out of the street. Several protesters were observed being handcuffed and taken away by authorities, although it is not if they were only being detained to get them out of the street or if they were being arrested.

The commission hosted a meeting two weeks ago when it adopted guidelines for the 1-year drone pilot program. The instructions were then posted on the department’s site for two weeks to get additional public feedback before the last vote.

The commission first heard a lecture on the guidelines in August, and the department hosted four public meetings for feedback.

Approval of the program — or unmanned aerial system, as the department refers to it — comes after the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of the LASD’s drone program, although Sheriff Jim McDonnell said that it would proceed.

According to the guidelines approved by the police commission, drones would be utilized in a limited capacity, including high-risk tactical operations, barricaded responses to armed suspects, hostage rescues, and situations involving threats of exposure to hazardous materials and the need to identify explosive devices.

The drones would not be weaponized or used for surveillance, and their use would have to be approved on a case-by-case circumstance. The commission also noted several more amendments before the final vote, including the policy that facial recognition would not be used on the drones.

The LAPD’s pursuance of the pilot program is a reversal of its policy after it dropped the proposal of using drones three years ago after a series of protests from activists.

Members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones LA Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other organizations have been outspoken about their disapproval of the program over concerns that “mission creep” will result in the devices being armed or used for surveillance to infringe on privacy.

“Drones represent a threat to privacy, one that is difficult to contain once drones are deployed for any use,” Melanie Ochoa, an ACLU staff attorney, said at a commission meeting in August.

The groups have also added that because the emails the LAPD received were overwhelmingly negative, the commission is not interested in the feedback it is receiving and is just going through the motions.

The L.A. City Council cleared the way in June for the fire department to start using drones. An L.A. Fire Department report discussed the issue of privacy concerns and said the devices would not be used to monitor for law enforcement.

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