Civilian Panel Overseeing LAPD Use of Drones Revisiting Program

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department plans today to revisit a drone program the department wants to create despite opposition from activists who consider the technology a threat to civil liberties.

The debate over the LAPD using drones began three years ago, when it acquired two of the devices, which ultimately it chose not to use in the face of protests from activists fearing surveillance uses. But the department reversed course recently and in August presented to the Board of Police Commissioners a plan to create a pilot drone program.

The board only heard a presentation in August but did not vote on the program. Now, however, it is scheduled to either approve or reject the pilot program following four public meetings the LAPD held on the issue before crafting its final guidelines.

The vote comes one week after the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Civilian Oversight Commission voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of the LASD's new drone program, although Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the program would continue.

According to the guidelines the LAPD has drafted for approval, drones would be used in high-risk tactical operations, barricaded armed suspect responses, hostage rescues, and situations involving threats of exposure to hazardous materials and the need to detect explosive devices.

The drones would not be weaponized, and their use would have be approved on a case-by-case basis.

The LAPD's possible use of drones is opposed by some civil rights organizations, and the members of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Drone- Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! Campaign and other groups that twice shut down the August meeting twice by chanting and yelling, resulting in officers twice clearing the room of spectators.

A pair of Draganflyer X6 drones were given to the LAPD by the city of Seattle in 2014 but were never deployed. The drones were put into storage, but LAPD Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala told the commissioners those two drones have since been destroyed.

Police Chief Charlie Beck said in 2014 that the drones could be used during tactical events such as manhunts and standoffs. But he also said the department planned to work closely with the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure the drones would not infringe on individual privacy rights.

The chief in 2014 also defended accepting the drones, and said such devices are already being used by private citizens, businesses and sports teams.

The groups opposed to the drones have said that although the current guidelines are limited, they could be changed later on to allow surveillance, invasions of privacy or end up being weaponized.

``Drones represent a significant threat to privacy, one that is very difficult to contain once drones are deployed for any use whatsoever,'' Melanie Ochoa, an ACLU staff attorney, told the commission.

Ochoa also said the ACLU had never been asked by the LAPD to advise it on its drone program.

After Girmala's presentation, Commission President Matt Johnson said, ``Technology has the potential to save lives. I know that unmanned aerial devices fall into that category. Our challenge is going to be to develop strong policies and oversight, to govern this program, to govern against misuse and mission creep.''

The Los Angeles City Council cleared the way in June for the city's fire department to begin using drones. A Los Angeles Fire Department report addressed the issue of privacy concerns and said the devices would not be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement.

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