Calif. Residents Concerned by Drone Use in Law Enforcement

Calif. Residents Concerned by Drone Use in Law Enforcement

Last week, Californians concerned for their privacy and civil liberties forced the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to pull an agenda item that would have approved a grant for the purchase of a drone. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California led the efforts to get the agenda item removed. Had it passed, Alameda County would have purchased California’s first drone to be used for domestic law enforcement purposes. 

According to a report, Alameda County, which encompasses cities such as Berkeley and Oakland, “has become a central” battleground over drones, because “were Alameda County to purchase a drone, it would set a precedent in California, which has long been an innovator in law enforcement tactics.” The state has pioneered everything from SWAT teams “to anti-gang tactics such as civil injunctions.”

Although, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said the drone would be used solely for “emergency response,” EFF obtained a July 20th, 2012 memo written by Captain Tom Madigan in the Alameda County Sheriff ‘s office which makes it seem like the county intends to use the drone for a variety of purposes, including law enforcement and surveillance:

The Alameda County Tactical Commanders were consulted, a regional group of SWAT team commanders throughout the County of Alameda. A UAS would be valuable to assist with barricaded suspects, surveillance (investigative and tactical) perimeters, intelligence gathering, rough terrain, suspicious persons, large crowd control disturbances, etc.

“UAVs have unprecedented capabilities to infringe on our civil liberties,” Trevor Timm, an attorney with the EFF, said. Timm also noted that drones can have “UAV-mounted cameras can be equipped with Forward Looking Infrared technology, which reads heat signatures through buildings, or intelligent video programs such as facial recognition software, which acts as a sort of automated license-plate reader for people.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors will vote in January whether a public dialogue is required to “establish a set of guidelines that would protect individual privacy and restrict how drones could be used during domestic policing.”

According to the ACLU of Northern California, the “Alameda County Sheriff already received bids for drones from Aeryon, Lockheed Martin, and ING,” and other California law enforcement agencies in San Francisco and San Diego are eyeing potential drone purchases. 

Last February, Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to “fast-track the approval of unmanned aerial vehicles.” The U.S. government has already used  drones domestically. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency used a drone to make an arrest in North Dakota in 2011.