Crime & Justice

LAPD drone plan draws privacy fears at community meeting

This meeting at the Friendship Auditorium in Atwater was one of four held by the LAPD Wednesday night to gather input on its proposed one year pilot program to fly a drone over Los Angeles.
This meeting at the Friendship Auditorium in Atwater was one of four held by the LAPD Wednesday night to gather input on its proposed one year pilot program to fly a drone over Los Angeles.
Frank Stoltze

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An LAPD public meeting in Atwater Village seeking community input on the department's proposed deployment of a drone drew opposition Wednesday night from residents worried about invasions of privacy.

The department is asking the Police Commission to approve its use of a drone in limited tactical situations during a one-year pilot program.

Gail Burns of Eagle Rock likened the situation to when the LAPD proposed dramatically expanding the use of helicopters more than 40 years ago.

"It seemed as though when the helicopters came in, it changed our lifestyle," said Burns, 73, one of about 40 people to attend the meeting. She lamented the helicopters’ loud noise, bright searchlights and general intrusion on the L.A. landscape. 

Just as the helicopters were "these birds up in the air that could be observing us," Burns worried that the LAPD would end up using drones for surveillance, a concern heard frequently at the meeting, one of four held around the city Wednesday.

Some said they didn't want to see the department placing weapons on the drone – something no police department in the country has yet done. The Connecticut state legislature is considering a first-in-the-nation bill that would allow police agencies to do just that.

Under the LAPD's proposal, the camera-equipped drone would send pictures back to officers on the ground in specific situations.

"We are talking high risk incidents such as barricaded and armed suspects, hostage situations, hazardous materials situations," Assistant Chief Bea Girmala said. A drone could help find a missing person swept away in the L.A. River during a winter storm; it could pinpoint an armed suspect’s location instead of forcing and officer to risk his or her life doing so; and it could eventually save money by freeing up officers to do other tasks, she said.

Under the program, the commanding officer of the department's anti-terrorism and special operations bureau would have to approve deployment of the drone. That was of little comfort to many in the crowd.

"In every instance in the past, when police have gotten a new kind of weapon or device, they found reasons to use it beyond its original intention," said Sarah Eggers of Glendale. She was among many who heard about the meeting not from the LAPD but from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which helped stop the department from deploying drones three years ago when it received two free unmanned aerial systems from Seattle.

"I can absolutely imagine a future when we have drones flying all over the skies of L.A. surveilling people," Eggers said.

While most of the people who spoke at the meeting said they were opposed to the use of drones, a few said they supported the LAPD’s use of the technology.

"We have so many folks that are just anti-police," said Caroline Aguirre of Eagle Rock. "They’re just totally against everything the police do."

But Aguirre, a neighborhood watch captain who works closely with police, said the police commission should keep a tight reign on any LAPD drone.

The department needs "very strict guidelines and procedures," she said. "We have got to make sure people’s constitutional rights are not violated."

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition sharply criticized the relatively short one-week notice for Wednesday night's four meetings. The coalition issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned and condemns the failure of Los Angeles Police Department outreach to communicate clearly and with reasonable notice to the public."  

The meetings were held in the department's four geographic bureaus and news releases were sent out every day for the entire week, spokesman Josh Rubinstein said.

Girmala said the LAPD’s pilot program "is on our list of wishes" but not necessarily a done deal at the police commission. She said she appreciated the public comments, and that she knows public trust remains a major obstacle for any drone program.

"The public debate will never end for law enforcement," Girmala said after the meeting. "Not only on the UAS [unmanned aerial systems] but on a variety of things we do."