Los Angeles community members spoke up at a public forum in Westwood on Wednesday against city police’s proposed use of drone technology.
At the Wednesday night meeting, Los Angeles Police Department officers addressed residents’ concerns about a proposal to allow the department to use nonweaponized drones, or small, unmanned aerial devices, to aid in police operations that might put officers’ lives at risk.
Horace Frank, LAPD deputy chief, said the department would only use drones to provide real-time video footage in tactical situations, such as when a suspect is armed and the police cannot get close without putting themselves in danger. He added only officers who go through a drone training course taught by the Federal Aviation Administration would be able to pilot the devices.
“The last thing we want to do, as best as we can, is put officers in harm’s way,” Frank said. “(We would) much rather see a (drone) get shot down instead of our officers.”
The department would need to keep detailed documentation of each officer’s request to use drones and report it regularly to the Los Angeles Police Commission, a board comprised of civilians and officers appointed by the mayor, Frank said. He added high-level officers would need to approve any requests to use drones.
Residents at the meeting said they were concerned about the department escalating the use of drones beyond tactical situations.
Hamid Khan, a coordinator for Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a group advocating against the department’s use of drones, said he thinks the department should not have access to drone technology given its previous misuse of StingRay surveillance technology, which are portable devices that mimic cellphone towers and cause cellphones to connect to them.
In 2013, LAPD records obtained by the First Amendment Coalition showed officers misused StingRay devices in several criminal investigations to gather citizens’ cell phone numbers without warrants.
Khan said he thinks the department could pair StingRay technology with drones to invade people’s privacy, and added North Dakota lawmakers allowed police to arm drones with nonlethal weapons several years after first making it legal for officers to use the devices.
Frank, however, said LAPD plans to use drones strictly for surveillance purposes.
“There’s no intent on our part to take this beyond tactical,” Frank said. “But if we do, we have to take that up with the Police Commission.”
Khan said he does not trust the Police Commission’s judgement in representing the needs of the Los Angeles people. He added he thinks the department is limiting public comment because he was only notified by the department about Wednesday’s public forum one day earlier.
“This is an example of deception (by the department),” he said.
Kevin Anderson, a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara who lives in Westwood, said he does not think the LAPD should use drones given its history of officers misusing police power. He added the department’s use of specially-trained officers last month to fatally shoot a suspect from a helicopter as an example of excessive force by police.
Frank said he expects LAPD’s proposal to go before the Police Commission sometime in September, and said the commission will provide the public with a policy document after reviewing the proposal. He added officers present at the forum recorded residents’ comments, but did not specify how those notes would affect the approval of the proposal.
“Every Tuesday at the Police Commission, we have hearings,” Frank said. “That is your voice to (share your viewpoints). And you have your elected representatives.”
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition will be hosting town halls to educate the public about the proposal before it goes to the Police Commission, Khan said.
Anderson said he plans to attend one of the Police Commission meetings in downtown LA, and added he is skeptical the department would not misuse any data collected by drones.
“Nothing can be erased in the (electronic) age,” he said. “I just don’t think (the proposal) passes the laugh test.”