The LAPD got the go-ahead this week from a civilian oversight panel to roll out a year-long drone pilot program. The panel voted 3-1 on this contentious issue, and the city is set to start using two drones within the next 30 days. The LAPD is the nation’s largest police force, so the implications for this development are huge.
Advocates for the drone program say it will protect officers and civilians by using drones instead of humans to gather crucial information in dangerous situations (active shooters, hostage situations, search & rescue missions, etc). The pilot program comes with strict rules on when the drones may be used – only with SWAT team members in the aforementioned dangerous situations – and every flight must be approved, documented, and reviewed. There’s a ban on facial recognition software and drone-operated weapons, and the Police Commission with publish quarterly reports on all drone activity.
Even with these restrictions in place, the program is facing heavy criticism from the public, as well as civil liberty and privacy organizations (the ACLU of Southern California and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition sent letters to the LAPD urging them to kill the pilot program). The outcry all comes down to one thing: Trust. The LAPD has a contentious history with regard to technology implementation, most prominently in its rollout of body cameras without a policy in place to release the footage to the public. Jim Lafferty, the executive director emeritus of the National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles, says:
“Mission creep is of course the concern. . . . The history of this department is of starting off with supposedly good intentions about the new toys that it gets . . . only to then get too tempted by what they can do with those toys.”
Los Angeles isn’t the first city to attempt to use drones as a part of their police forces – and this isn’t even the first time the LAPD has tried to use drones. Seattle tried to start up a police drone program in 2013, but after heavy criticism from the public, the city killed the program and sent their drones to Los Angeles. The public outcry followed the drones to LA, and the LAPD also grounded and ultimately destroyed the drones without ever using them.
So why, a few years later, are they reviving and pushing forward with this program? Charlie Beck, the LAPD police chief, said at the panel vote meeting that more agencies are using drones, and there’s a “much more robust feedback mechanism” in place now. Time will tell whether these factors have any influence on keeping the drone program within their stated bounds.
Why it’s hot (and/or terrifying, depending on your view): The LAPD is the nation’s largest police force, and the outcomes of this pilot program will have a significant impact on future developments in unmanned civilian surveillance by our own government.