Crime & Justice

5 things to think about as the LAPD plans to launch a drone

/Andreas Claesson/Courtesy of FlyPulse

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The LAPD plans to deploy a drone over the skies of Los Angeles, and it's holding a series of community meetings Wednesday to gather public input.

A list of the meetings is below. But first, here are five things to think about as police and fire departments increasingly turn to drones.

The LAPD is asking the Police Commission to approve its use of a drone during a one-year pilot program

Under the department’s proposal, specially trained officers would have access to one drone for things such as search-and-rescue operations, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response and incidents involving barricaded and armed suspects.

The department is proposing a "pilot program for the use of a small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS), otherwise commonly known as a small drone, in limited tactical situations," according to a department statement.  "The proposed pilot program will be for a period of one year and will be monitored by the Board of Police Commissioners."

"At the end of the pilot program, the usefulness of the sUAS will be evaluated to determine if a permanent program should be put into place."

The LAPD has had drones since 2014, but it hasn't used them

The LAPD received two drones as a donation from the Seattle Police Department three years ago but never deployed them.

The Seattle Police Department gifted two Draganflyer X6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the LAPD at no cost, since Seattle purchased them with federal Homeland Security grant money.

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

Seattle’s mayor and the city's police chief decided to ground the drone operation after the city council proposed an ordinance that would require police to obtain a search warrant to use them in non-emergency situations.

Activists have long fought the use of drones by the LAPD

The Stop the LAPD Spying Coalition worries about "mission creep."

"What is the long-term capacity for these drones to negatively impact our communities?" the coalition’s Hamid Kahn told KPCC earlier this year,  pointing to the possibility of weaponizing drones or spying.

The Connecticut state legislature is considering a bill that would allow police to place lethal weapons on drones. It would be the first state in the nation to do so.

"We need to see drones in the context of the enhanced militarization of police departments," Khan said.

Supporters argue drones can save the lives of officers by allowing commanders to avoid placing them in harm’s way. Instead of an officer creeping up on an armed suspect to determine his location, a drone can do that work, they say.

The L.A. sheriff uses a drone – despite opposition from a civilian oversight panel

In the first such move by a police agency in Los Angeles County, the sheriff's department began using an unmanned drone in January to assist deputies on the ground. It’s been used about a half dozen times, according to the department.

The Federal Aviation Administration approved the sheriff's application to use the drone in the same sorts of situations in which the LAPD would use them.

A majority of the newly-created Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission this summer urged Sheriff Jim McDonnell to ground the drone, citing concerns about privacy and the potential trauma to people caused by quiet unmanned aircraft overhead. The panel was divided over a set of recommended restrictions, including that McDonnell "explicitly and unequivocally" state his opposition to arming any drones used by the department.

Hundreds of police and fire departments have drones

Many law enforcement leaders see drones as an important part of policing in the future – particularly in urban areas.

In California, approximately 30 police agencies use them. Across the nation, nearly 350 police, sheriff, fire and emergency medical agencies have drones, according to The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

Most are consumer grade drones and most operate in rural areas, said the center’s co-director Dan Gettinger.  Urban areas like L.A. face more challenges, including airports with flight restrictions and large populations.

And, he noted, a camera-equipped drone launched to find an armed suspect is gathering a lot of data about a neighborhood it's searching.

"That’s one of the big question marks," Gettinger said. "How long are these department going to retain the data; what types of data is collected?"

Wednesday's LAPD meetings

All of the meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.