Eyes on the sky

Eyes on the sky

Local police downplay interest in drones while other agencies wait for approval

By André Coleman 08/26/2013

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Earlier this year, Jimmy Lee Dykes, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran, shot and killed a school bus driver before holding a 5-year-old boy hostage in an underground bunker that he had built in his backyard in Alabama. 

For days, law enforcement officials unsuccessfully tried to talk Dykes into releasing the boy. After negotiations between the two sides broke down, FBI agents moved in, storming the bunker, killing Dykes and freeing the child minutes after Dykes had picked up his gun. 

What Dykes didn’t know was that the FBI had deployed an unmanned drone equipped with a special camera that allowed agents to watch him as it hovered hundreds of feet above the bunker — a technology borne of the war raging in the Middle East and Asia that is increasingly being employed for domestic law enforcement and civilian purposes here in the United States.

Although that dramatic situation in Alabama had a positive outcome for the young boy, some lawmakers and civil rights advocates are expressing concerns that new legislation, which allows local law enforcement agencies to use drones on American soil, could lead to potentially insurmountable problems associated with safeguarding people’s privacy.

“I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone and the use of the drone, and the very few regulations that are on it today and the booming industry of commercial drones,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said when FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted that the agency had used drones “maybe a dozen times” over the last year. When asked about safeguards at the hearing before Feinstein’s committee, Mueller said the agency was only now in the early stages of developing such policies.

Unprecedented ability
The unmanned airborne devices are made primarily for the military by publicly traded AeroVironment, Inc., a company doing business in Monrovia and Simi Valley that makes electric vehicle systems, electric vehicle chargers and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Founded by designer Paul MacCready in 1971, the company has developed lightweight human-powered and solar-powered vehicles, as well as drones for the US Armed Services, with military contracts totaling tens of millions of dollars. The company is currently marketing its UAVs to public sector agencies in the US, including police departments.

In the San Gabriel Valley, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department last year expressed interest in drones, but decided against using them for the time being, choosing instead to rely on its sizable helicopter fleet for overhead surveillance needs. 

Also not interested — at least right now — are police departments in Pasadena, Glendale, South Pasadena, Arcadia, Alhambra, San Gabriel and Monterey Park, said spokespeople for those agencies. 

Since their development, drones have primarily been used in fighting the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, although there have been lethal strikes against alleged terrorists in Pakistan. Initially, officials with the Obama administration claimed that unmanned armed drones were more accurate than bomber jet pilots and left American military personnel and noncombatants out of harm’s way. However, in March UPI reported that US drone strikes in Afghanistan killed 10 times as many civilians as manned jet fighters, mostly due to a lack of training by operators of the numerous types of aircraft being used. The story cited a classified study by an adviser to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff as its main source but did not list specific numbers.

CIA Director John Brennan said during an April 30 press conference (when he served as Homeland Security Adviser) that US drones “targeted strikes against specific al Qaida terrorists. … With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.”

And now, that same technology may be used to patrol highways, fight crime and perform numerous other law enforcement functions in urban areas across the country. 

That’s not a bird
Congress is requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open the nation’s airspace to drone traffic by September 2015. Officials with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) estimate that 10,000 drones could be buzzing around the skies of American cities by 2020. 

In an effort to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to use the futuristic aircraft, the FAA ruled that law enforcement agencies can use drones, but only if they can show proficiency with the equipment and obtain a license. 

The decision came on the heels of a reauthorization bill signed by Obama that directed the FAA to speed up the process used by public safety and emergency first responders to become authorized to operate the aircraft. The bill allows the various agencies to fly drones that weigh 4.4 pounds or less and restricts them from flying more than 400 feet above the ground.

When queried, officials with a number of area police departments said they have not applied for licenses to use the aircraft and told the Weekly they have no plans to use drones.

“There appears to be a lot of applicable efficient use for the military because of the terrain the drone can fly over,” observed Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez. “But in an urban setting, I would have some concerns if it goes awry and the technology fails. Helicopters have trained pilots who are thinking in real time to mitigate the concerns in the air. How do you do that in real time from the ground?” 

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore told the Weekly that the department is staying abreast of the technology, but currently has no plans to employ drones.  

“There are too many regulations prohibiting their use,” Whitmore said. “Our coverage area is good for a helicopter.”

But Whitmore doesn’t rule out their possible use sometime in the future.

“We don’t use any and don’t have any plans to right now, but we are certainly looking at it,” he said.
A spokesperson with the LAPD said the department does not have a policy on drone use. However, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that the LAPD and 81 other agencies had filed for licenses to operate drones. Two of those agencies were the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Division and the department’s Bureau of Border and Customs Protection.  

Police departments in Houston, Arlington, Texas, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho have also applied for licenses to fly drones, as have several colleges, including Cal State Fresno, Mississippi State University and Cornell University. Experts believe the drones will be used at universities for research purposes. 

According to EPIC, the technology employed by drones is capable of recording in detail objects as small as six inches from 17,000 feet in the air. Documents obtained by EPIC revealed that drones purchased by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection are outfitted with facial identification software, license plate readers and equipment that could intercept electronic communications.

“The use of drones gives the federal government a new capability to monitor citizens clandestinely, while the effectiveness of the surveillance planes in border patrol operations has not been proven,” Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC’s  Domestic Surveillance Project, said in testimony last year before the Senate. 

Get a warrant
Potential privacy issues have led legislatures in 15 states to consider proposals that would limit or ban drone use altogether. The City Council in Charlottesville, Va., for instance, unanimously passed a resolution on Feb. 4 barring local police from using drones to collect any type of evidence in criminal cases. Last year, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn forced the police department there to return two drones after activists complained about their use.

Republican US Rep. Ted Poe of Texas has recently introduced the Preserving American Privacy Act (PAPA), which would require police to acquire a warrant or a court order before operating a drone to collect information on individuals. That legislation is expected to be considered by Congress this session.
“It’s my opinion that Congress should take the lead on this issue, rather than wait for cases to occur, and those cases end up in different courts throughout the country,” Poe said.

In June, Republican Sen. Rand Paul introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, requiring law enforcement officials to get warrants in all cases in which drones are used on American soil, with the exception of border protection. According to the legislation, Americans would have the right to sue a government agency if the information was obtained unlawfully. Paul made headlines in March when he held a filibuster for 13 hours on the floor of the Senate in protest over the use of drones against American citizens on foreign soil. 

“Like other tools used to collect information in law enforcement, in order to use drones a warrant needs to be issued,” Paul told The Hill newspaper. “Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics.” 

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