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Police drones worry some in LA. What is the Sheriff's Department's unmanned aircraft up to?

LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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The LAPD wants more eyes in the sky. 

The department took a step this week to begin using drones under certain conditions. For years, community pushback has kept unmanned aircraft grounded for law enforcement in Los Angeles. 

That resistance continued on Tuesday, when protesters temporarily shut down an L.A. Police Commission meeting after LAPD officials proposed a pilot program to use drones during hostage standoffs and for other tactical purposes.

But a police drone is already in operation in Los Angeles County. 

The Sheriff's Department has deployed one several times since January, when Sheriff Jim McDonnell unveiled the unmanned aircraft

Captain Jack Ewell commands the special operations department that flies the LA County Sheriff's Department drone. He joined A Martinez on Take Two Thursday to discuss the program.

What's the equipment you're working with? What's it look like, sound like? 

There's not a lot of sound to it. It's electric, so it's very quiet. It's very small. Maybe a foot or so in diameter, and six or seven inches tall. 

Is it just one drone? 

Yes it's one, and just to be precise, the FAA term for what we fly is "unmanned aircraft."

It's clearly marked for the public in big red letters. It says "Rescue" on the side and it has a sheriff's insignia so the public would know if they saw it that it does belong to us, and the missions that we use if for, which are rescue-type operations.

What kinds of tactical situations have you used the drone in?

We've used it mainly in search and rescue operations, and we've also used it during armed gunman tactical operations. Once during an active shooter situation. And once just a little over a week ago where a gunman using a protective vest and helmet forced his way into someone's house and shot two people, and then barricaded himself in that house.

The use of the aircraft allowed us to safely handle that situation and be able to check for additional victims or suspects in the house, and ensure our deputies and the public were safe. We had an actual [manned] helicopter at that same scene. But the helicopters are about 500 feet in the air to be safe. And they have to be careful that they don't get shot by the gunman and crash. Also at that altitude they don't get a good view into a structure to be able to see a gunman. So we were able to use the helicopter for kind of a big picture of the whole operation, and the unmanned aircraft we were able to fly 10-15 feet off the ground and be able to watch where the suspect was until we could safely go in and make sure everyone was out of the house and eventually deal directly with that gunman.  

Is the Sheriff's Department using this for general surveillance purposes at all?

No. That's strictly forbidden in the policy. Matter of fact, our policy states the UAS shall not be used for random surveillance missions, or any missions that would violate the privacy rights of the public. We're very sensitive to that, and we're very sensitive that we need public support to be able to provide the best public safety to the community.

And because we have such strict regulations, I think that's why we do have the support that we have. We recently conducted a survey of the general public, and 89% of the several thousand responses that we received were in favor of the Sheriff's Department deploying an unmanned aircraft in the strict way that we deploy it.

What about the Sheriff's Department Civilian Oversight panel? They said [last month] they want the Sheriff's Department to stop the drone program, and they also voted against a set of guidelines on how to use the aircraft. Where does this leave the program? What guidelines are you operating under?

We have very strict department policy guidelines, and we also have very strict FAA guidelines. As far as the Civilian Oversight Commission goes, that's an ongoing process. The Civilian Oversight Commission and the Sheriff's Department have the same goal, and that is to provide the best public safety possible to the residents and visitors of Los Angeles County. And we're working with them on that.

The Office of the Inspector General, which has the full-time oversight of the Sheriff's Department, in their report, they concluded recently that there are many valuable uses of this technology that will undoubtedly save lives over time. 

When the average person looks up and sees a drone, and knows it's for police or Sheriff purposes, I can see them being unnerved about it. How do you address the privacy concerns the average person might have?

Yes, and we're very sensitive to that. One thing is the public would never look directly up and see this. In our FAA certificate of authorization, we're not allowed to fly this aircraft directly over people. That's not how we deploy it. And again that's an education thing that we need to discuss with someone in the public that would have that concern.

Let's take for instance the incident with the gunman in the house I mentioned. We don't fly the unmanned aircraft to that location over other people's residences or other people to try and view the gunman. We drive it up to a perimeter. Our deputies evacuate an area, and make sure it's safe and no one's in an area...That's being done anyway because there's an active gunman there. So no one's going to see it flying overhead. We drive it into that interior perimeter, and from there we fly it 10-15 feet off the ground to get the view of where a gunman is hiding. It's not used to fly at an altitude like a regular helicopter to get an overview of the whole scene.

In a search and rescue operation, it's used in conjunction with aircraft because the unmanned aircraft can fly into dangerous canyons and under tree canopies to search for people that the regular helicopter either can't do, or it's too dangerous to do.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full conversation by clicking on the blue media player above.