LAPD gets two free Draganflyer drones from Seattle police

A Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle used by the Mesa County Sheriff's Dept. unmanned operations team.
A Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle used by the Mesa County Sheriff's Dept. unmanned operations team. Mesa County Sheriff's Dept.

The Los Angeles Police Department is getting a free pair of drones from their counterparts in Seattle, but they come with a warning that they will have to mind the public if they hope to keep them.

The Seattle Police Department is gifting two Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the LAPD at no cost to the city of L.A., since Seattle purchased them about five years ago with federal Homeland Security grant money.

Seattle had to give them up when residents expressed widespread concern over privacy and the potential for misuse.

Last year, Seattle’s mayor and the city police chief decided to ground the drone operation after the city council proposed an ordinance that would limit the use of the drones and require police to obtain a search warrant to use them on non-emergency situations.

The LAPD announced the drone acquisition Friday in a news release.

“No decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used,” the news release stated. “They are currently in the custody of a Federal Law Enforcement Agency pending review by the LAPD and the Board of Police Commissioners, as well as the public.”

The police department said the drones would only be used for SWAT calls such as barricaded suspects or hostage situations.

Los Angeles police spokesperson Commander Andrew Smith was deliberate in repeating that the drones would not be used until there are protocols in place for their deployment and approval from the L.A. Police Commission.

“I think the public legitimately has some concerns of unmanned aerial vehicle flying over a house could be infringing upon their privacy,” Smith said.

For now, Homeland Security will keep the drones until the city gets approval to use them and it obtains a federal air permit to fly the machines. Smith said the department is aware that it might have to pass off the drones to another entity as Seattle is doing.

“Ultimately, that might happen,” he said. “Again the decision has not been made as to whether we are going to use these or not in tactical situations but right now we are looking at an extremely narrow use.”

In Charlottesville, Va., the city council passed a resolution for a two-year moratorium on the use of drones. There’s been a tug-of-war between the Alameda County Sheriff, who wants to purchase a drone, and privacy advocates. And Compton residents cried foul when it was revealed that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department paid a privacy company to surveil the city of Compton for more than week last year.

“Los Angeles residents are used to police helicopters but drones are different,” said staff attorney Peter Bibring with the ACLU of Southern California.

The local civil rights group applauded the LAPD for its upfront transparency but warned that the police department would have to be extremely careful in communicating clearly with the public about what it intends to do with the drone and strictly adhering to it. 

“The threat from drones is particularly severe when coupled with other technologies like facial recognition, the use of infrared night vision cameras, or even listening devices,” Bibring said.

The drones being given to the LAPD weigh about 3.5 pounds each with a still and video camera, thermal vision capabilities for night vision, and a 20-minute battery life.

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