LOS ANGELES – The Board of Supervisors asked Los Angeles County’s inspector general Tuesday to review the sheriff’s plan to operate a drone and evaluate those findings with the civilian oversight commission set up as a watchdog for the department.
Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended the review, which was unanimously approved by the board.
Solis said she supports the use of the drone in search-and-rescue, bomb detection, hostage situations and other critical incidents, but said she was sensitive to concerns about the unmanned aircraft system.
“These devices can greatly aid law enforcement in protecting the public and deputies and their use deserves strong support. However, past experience has led to valid concern that the devices … can be used for more controversial purposes,” Solis said in her motion.
“Drones have been used to carry weapons by the military and so even the name is a matter of debate,” the motion says. “Flying cameras, whether remotely controlled or not, have in the past been used for warrant-less surveillance and sometimes without notice to the public.” [View the motion here.]
Organizers of the Drone-Free LASD/No Drones, LA! campaign urged the board to do more than study the problem.
“The drone should not be operated at all. It should be grounded,” said Hamid Khan, an anti-drone activist, adding that his group had been successful in keeping the Los Angeles Police Department from using its drones.
Khan and others said they are worried about mission creep and don’t trust the sheriff and his deputies to abide by written policies limiting the use of drones.
“To think that the sheriff needs to add drones to its arsenal (to protect people)…. is naive and wrong,” Tiffany Guerra said.
Supervisor Janice Hahn reminded her colleagues that she represented Compton when the city was caught off-guard by a 2012 drone surveillance “experiment” by the Sheriff’s Department, which didn’t inform the mayor or the city council that the eye-in-the-sky technology was being used.
“While we really want to support our sheriff’s department, our law enforcement agencies … I also share some concerns,” Hahn said.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced the acquisition of an unmanned aircraft system earlier this month, saying the Federal Aviation Administration had also approved its use in hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires and with barricaded, armed suspects.
While the FAA lays out rules for the use of drones that limit their use near airports, for example, it does not regulate information gathering by drones.
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 at a news conference unveiling the drone.
The drone can gather otherwise inaccessible information and give deputies the ability to make better choices, the sheriff said.
Opponents have countered that law enforcement drones often monitor non-criminal activity and can result in secret files held on innocent people.
The board did not dictate a time frame for the inspector general and oversight commission’s review and evaluation.
Previous related story: Activists ask county supervisors to ban use of drone by Sheriff’s Department