LOS ANGELES – Activists called Tuesday on the Board of Supervisors to ban the sheriff’s use of a drone, which the county’s top cop said he plans to use in search-and-rescue, bomb detection, hostage situations and other critical incidents to keep the public and deputies safe.
Protesters — gathered on the steps of the county Hall of Administration to launch a Drone-Free LASD/No Drones, LA! campaign — said use of the unmanned aerial craft is a “giant step forward in the militarization of local law enforcement” and called on the supervisors to intervene.
Citing a long history of mistrust between the Sheriff’s Department and the communities it serves, coalition members said they had no confidence that the LASD would limit the use of the technology and respect privacy rights.
“We cannot trust the Sheriff’s Department,” said coalition spokeswoman Jamie Garcia.
The coalition touted its success in convincing the Los Angeles Police Department to lock up its drones, acquired from the Seattle Police Department.
Coalition spokesman Hamid Khan said there were no circumstances under which the group would condone the use of drones.
“For us … it is completely a non-starter,” Khan told reporters. “We know how policies are violated.”
Khan said SWAT teams, originally envisioned for use in high-profile tactical situations, are now used in fighting low-level drug crimes.
“We know that mission creep is real,” Khan said.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced the acquisition of an unmanned aircraft system last week, saying the Federal Aviation Administration had also approved its use in hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires and with barricaded, armed suspects.
The remote controlled unit with an on-board video camera is assigned to the Special Enforcement Bureau, which comprises the Emergency Services, Special Enforcement, Arson/Explosives and HazMat details.
“The dangers of law enforcement can never be eliminated. However, this technology can assist us in reducing the impact of risks on personnel and allow us to perform operations to enhance public safety,” McDonnell said last week at a news conference to announce his planned drone use. [View video of the news conference here.]
The drone can gather otherwise inaccessible information and give deputies the ability to make better choices, the sheriff said.
The coalition countered that law enforcement drones often monitor non-criminal activity and can result in secret files held on innocent people.
In a letter intended for the Board of Supervisors, the group said the LASD’s tips and leads program, initiated as part of the agency’s counterterrorism efforts, “has evolved into LASD’s insidious tool for everyday policing.”
Also in that letter, the group alleges that the Sheriff’s Department “is in the process of creating a massive facial recognition and biometric database with the capacity to hold information on 15 million individuals.”
Privacy wasn’t the only concern raised by opponents, who pointed out that North Dakota has legalized law enforcement use of drones armed with non-lethal weapons such as tear gas, rubber bullets and Tasers.
The coalition is seeking an emergency meeting with the board.