There's been a buzz around whether unmanned drone aircraft are being used in the search for murder suspect and fugitive ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner in the Los Angeles area. The story first surfaced in the British tabloid the Daily Express.
KPCC reporters set out to verify or debunk the report. Some police agencies — including the Los Angeles Police Department — flatly denied they were using drones. But others were coy. Here are the findings.
LAPD says no
Los Angeles police spokesperson Lt. Andy Smith said Sunday afternoon that the department is not using drones to find Dorner.
LAPD Deputy Chief Jose Perez reiterated the point to reporters Monday afternoon during a news conference in Riverside. "No, LAPD doesn't have any drones," he said, adding that he wasn't aware of any drones being used during the search.
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KPCC reporter Erika Aguilar reported on the civilian use of drones last summer and learned that the LAPD hadn't yet purchased one. Deputy Chief Michael Downing is in charge of counter-terrorism and special operations for LAPD; he said the department had no intention of buying a drone anytime soon.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says no
The Feb. 10 Daily Express story cited unnamed sources in its report that U.S. Customs and Border Protection was using drones to hunt Dorner.
A senior police source said: "The thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack."
But such technology is already available on law enforcement helicopters. It's called FLIR, for "forward looking infrared imaging systems." A FLIR unit appears as a black ball attached to the underside of a helicopter (see photo above). The LAPD has plenty of helicopters equipped with FLIR, and most police helos have them.
For its part, Customs and Border Protection denied the report of drone use:
"Reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection's unmanned aircraft systems are being used are incorrect. CBP UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) are not flying in support of the search." —Ralph DeSio, Public Information Specialist in San Diego
The Joint Dorner Task Force won't comment
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Police Department announced the establishment of the Joint Dorner Task Force that includes the LAPD, Irvine and Riverside police departments, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department, Orange County Sheriff's Department, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service.
A spokesperson for the task force declined to comment on the use of drones: "We do not discuss tactical strategies or investigation details."
What are police allowed to do with drones?
The Federal Aviation Administration last May released new guidelines for law enforcement agencies that want to deploy unmanned aircraft systems that weight up to 25 pounds.
According to the guidelines:
- Drones can be flown up to 400 feet in the air
- The pilot handling the drone must be able to see the small aircraft and cannot be within five miles of an airport or other aviation activity
- Operational permits have also been extended to last two years instead of one
- Law enforcement agencies interested in flying drones must apply for permits with the FAA
There is a loophole: The FAA can skip the whole permit-application-wait-time process and grant a police agency an immediate temporary-permission permit if they use the drone for disaster or humanitarian relief.
Should we be concerned?
The prospect of police drones summons up the spectre of police-state surveillance methods and vanishing personal privacy. But are such concerns warranted?
Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, says the worlds of military and civilian equipment are merging faster than Congress can write rules to balance privacy and police powers.
"That's something Congress is looking at now in the Homeland security committees in the House and Senate," Meyer said. "They are trying to figure out what regulatory framework there can be for this type of thing, what kind of oversight there should be, who's in charge. But a lot of that is up for grabs right now."
Law enforcement agencies already have eyes in the skies in the form of balloons on the national borders, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Drones would be one more tool for law enforcement.
"When you talk about drones, there is a supposition that there's constant surveillance from above, and that it's much more invasive," Meyer said. "So I think that's the concern from people that there is something hovering over them at all times watching everything that they do — a Big Brother type mentality."
What do you think about civilian law-enforcement agencies using unmanned drones? Sound off in the comments below.