The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), having conducted an online survey regarding the use of its unmanned aircraft system (UAS), says 89% of respondents support the use of the department’s drone for emergency or life-threatening situations, despite ongoing public concerns over the use of the aircraft.
The survey was conducted at the request of Los Angeles County’s Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), a group created early last year to “improve public transparency and accountability with respect to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”
At a press conference in January, the LASD announced it would be bringing on board a drone to be used in “dangerous, hostile and life-saving operations.” Since then, the UAS program has been used in five search-and-rescue operations and one incident involving a dangerous, armed gunman, according to the department.
During the recent two-week survey period, 3,054 responses reflected that half of the individuals were familiar with the UAS platform, and the other half were unfamiliar with the program before learning about it through the survey and information provided by the department.
As reported by the LASD, supportive comments from those surveyed included, “If it keeps people safe, I’m all for it,” and, “I feel it would allow the LASD [to] better assess how to help in a large variety of circumstances where human or helicopters are not available or able to safely assess needs or a dire situation.”
However, says the department, the results reflected that 11% of the respondents did not approve. Specifically, they cited concerns such as, “No, privacy has potential to be misused in low-income areas, racial profiling, etc.,” and, “I am against the LASD using UAS for any other purposes. The invasion of privacy by flying over private property without a search warrant is of ultimate concern.”
In March, the “Stop LAPD Spying Coalition,” which was created years ago in response to the Los Angeles Police Department’s plan to deploy drones, also spoke out against the LASD’s use of drones. Specifically, its rejection stemmed from “deep concerns and history of violence, brutality, disregard for privacy rights and several other factors.”
The LASD makes note that authorized missions for UAS deployment include SAR missions, barricaded suspects, hostage situations, high-risk tactical operations, hazardous-materials incidents, and fire-related incidents. Importantly, the drone is not being used for random surveillance or and any other situation that would violate department policy or Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, says the LASD.
Moreover, the LASD points out that many of the concerns over issues such as personal privacy were addressed in the department’s initial news conference and news release about the program in January. The department points to a video that explained the policy and “very restrictive, authorized uses” of the drone. In addition, Sheriff Jim McDonnell emphasized that the department’s mission of the program is to protect the lives and property of residents and visitors of Los Angeles County. Thus, says the LASD, the system is being used only in a “constitutionally and legally sound manner” and in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Via the department’s release on its survey results, Captain Jack Ewell from the sheriff’s Special Enforcement Bureau states, “We have always, from the very first day, wanted to be completely transparent. The UAS can be deployed quickly and provide close-up views of uncertain, isolated or hostile situations. This new tool will provide safety for deputy sheriffs and community members approaching the incident.”
The department also notes that Sheriff McDonnell saw the importance of answering the public’s questions or concerns by providing an advisory video and text outlining the intended uses of the UAS. Furthermore, information about the UAS program and the request for feedback were distributed directly to radio, television and print media outlets and were also posted on various social media platforms.
According to a July 27 report from the COC, however, which cites “mission creep” and weaponized drone concerns, the commission has received public input describing “genuine and serious concern about the potential abuse of UAS by law enforcement.”
During public hearings held this year, the COC says, “Without exception, the comments of every member of the public who addressed the COC were resoundingly negative.” The comments came from groups including the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Dignity and Power Now, and the Youth Justice Coalition. The COC says the ACLU even distributed a report entitled “Making Smart Decisions About Surveillance” at one of the meetings.
The commission also says it’s “unfortunate that the sheriff did not obtain public comment before implementing the use of its UAS program in January of this year.”
Notably, the COC does say that drones are “an important public safety and officer safety tool” and an “important component for providing situational awareness in high-risk emergency, life-threatening situations,” as long as they are “used properly and within the limitations set by the sheriff.”
In turn, the COC has made several recommendations for the LASD’s use of the technology going forward. These include “explicitly and unequivocally” stating that no drones will be equipped with weapons, keeping a detailed log of all flights, notifying the COC within 48 hours of any drone operations, conducting an annual audit of the drone program and discarding video footage after two years.