LAPD Gets Approval to Test Surveillance Drones Despite Privacy Concerns

The Los Angeles Police Department is the largest police agency in the nation to deploy unmanned aerial systems for surveillance.

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) will become the largest police department in the United States to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles after a civilian oversight panel approved a year-long test of drones.

The Los Angeles Police Commission voted 3-1 in favor of the LAPD using the pilot program during a contentious Oct. 17 hearing, which provoked jeers, cursing and a small protest that spilled into a downtown intersection outside the LAPD headquarters, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Following the Police Commission’s approval, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the department would likely purchase two drones — one to use and one for backup — and deploy them in about 30 days.

The drones are scheduled to be deployed by the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division SWAT Team in order to resolve “dangerous, high-risk tactical situations and improve situational awareness capabilities during natural disasters and catastrophic incidents,” according to a draft proposal.

Advocates contend that drones equipped with cameras can help protect officers and others by collecting crucial information during high-risk situations or searches without risking their safety, the Times reported. For many privacy advocates and police critics, however, the drones incite privacy concerns over unwarranted surveillance or fears of militarized devices patrolling the skies.

LAPD officials and police commissioners attempted to ease those concerns by promising careful restrictions on when the drones would be used and strong oversight of the pilot program. For example, the officials said, weapons and facial-recognition technology will be prohibited.

The debate over whether the LAPD should use drones began in 2014, when the department received two Draganflyer X6 drones from police in Seattle, which the agency decided to unload after heavy criticism from the public.

The outcry continued in Los Angeles, and the drones were grounded — and later destroyed — before they were ever flown, the Times reported.

“I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment,” Beck said at the time.

Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill, who cast the sole vote against the drone program at the Oct. 17 meeting, asked Beck about his comments three years ago and why he thought now was a good time to revisit the issue. He pointed to the wider use of drones by other agencies and what he described as a “much more robust feedback mechanism” this time around.

Beck’s comments were met with jeers from many in the audience.

“I know that all of you think that the process means nothing to me, but that is not true,” Beck told the crowd. “Are we going to agree in the end? Maybe not. But I will have heard you.”

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