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Game of Drones: How LAPD Quietly Acquired the Spy Birds Shunned by Seattle

Game of Drones: How LAPD Quietly Acquired the Spy Birds Shunned by Seattle
ILLUSTRATION BY NOAH PATRICK PFARR

When a Seattle Police Department commander boarded a commercial jet to L.A. three weeks ago, below him in the cargo hold were two large packages he'd checked as baggage — two miniature, 3-foot-long, camera-equipped helicopters, destined for the LAPD.

It had been almost a year since the two 3.5-pound Draganflyer X6 drones caused a huge public uproar in Seattle over privacy rights and police snooping, forcing the mayor to permanently ground the mini spy drones before they took their first official flights. They'd been sitting on a shelf ever since, after their Canadian manufacturer refused to take them back. Now LAPD has taken possession of the drones and promises to hold public hearings — after the fact.

When the commander dropped off the little choppers in L.A. later that day, it was a case of happier to give than receive. The Seattle PD, laboring under federal oversight for excessive use of force, has just picked a new chief, former Boston Police commissioner Kathleen O'Toole, and was happy to escape its drone controversy.

"It's important to have an open conversation with the public on what your plans are when you're talking about drones," says Seattle Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb about the lessons learned. "We thought we'd been pretty clear about our intentions, but some obviously thought otherwise."

Now it's L.A.'s turn in this game of drones. The department announced May 30 that it received the $82,000 worth of choppers and other equipment from Seattle, which obtained them in 2012 through a federal Homeland Security grant. Seattle gave one Draganflyer to the local sheriff's office, which gave it back, wanting to avoid the public outrage Seattle endured.

SPD then offered the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, as police, military and industry types prefer to call drones) to other cities so that it wouldn't have to reimburse the feds. LAPD decided it could use them in much the same upbeat way Seattle had planned, in hostage and rescue missions.

If that happens, LAPD spokesman Andrew Smith says, it will be only after a process that, unlike Seattle's mostly under-the-radar approach, will include public hearings, strict protocols for usage and approval by the police commission, which plans to hold hearings this summer. LAPD also will need federal approval, since no drone flights above 400 feet are allowed without FAA permission.

L.A. thus joins an assortment of cities from New York to Berkeley weighing the use of surveillance drones. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said last month that he's "supportive of the concept of drones, not only for police but for public safety in general." In Berkeley, the fire-safety commission has proposed limited drone usage in emergency situation. But two other agencies want a citywide "no drone zone."

A few U.S. police agencies have used drones, with FAA approval. The Mesa County Sheriff's Office in Colorado has logged roughly 200 flight hours since 2010 with Draganfly and fixed-wing Falcon drones, mainly for search and rescue.

Ten federal and state agencies have applied for or received flight permission in California, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. An EFF interactive map shows drones are used by state universities, military bases and California Fire Services (to monitor wildfires). In Simi Valley, the Air Force is cleared to flight-test a Puma UAV with a 9-foot wingspan.

Seattle police are still amazed by the firestorm they set off with their new supertoys. Each Draganfly, operated by a handheld controller with a video screen, is equipped with a digital still camera, high-resolution video camera and infrared night-vision capabilities. The unarmed drones were viewed by police as essentially harmless tools, which could stay aloft for only 25 minutes on battery power.

But at a climactic February 2013 public hearing, objectors called the Seattle City Council members "idiots," "crooks" and "Nazis" for even entertaining the idea of police drones, which were widely seen as peeping Toms with badges.

Protesters viewed the tiny Draganflyer much the way Yemenis probably see the U.S. military's 5-ton Predator drones: Some threatened to shoot them down with slingshots or shotguns.

Alex Zimmerman of Stand Up America told the Seattle City Council, "You're more dangerous than Communist, more dangerous than Gestapo, more dangerous than KGB." In the city where Boeing took flight and Jeff Bezos is developing drone delivery of Amazon tomes, almost no one was willing to concede airspace to the mini U-2s.

Within weeks, then–Mayor Mike McGinn shelved the project — the same month the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, issued a two-year moratorium. "Drones would have given the police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on the privacy of people in Seattle," said ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig, "and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed them for public safety."

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has been making the rounds at newspaper editorial boards and giving TV interviews, promising an open and transparent process. Smith quotes Beck as saying "public trust is more important than a piece of equipment."

The problem, for many opponents, is that Beck has already taken possession of the controversial devices. He told KABC recently, "These are a valuable tool. They have an application. We want to make sure the value of that tool isn't over-arched by the resistance to its use. We want to make sure the public knows that we're using them to make them safer, and certainly not to spy on them."

That sounds as if Beck has already decided to employ drones, ahead of what people may say at public hearings.

The review will focus on what Smith calls the "narrow and prescribed uses [of drones] to prevent imminent bodily harm — for example, a hostage situation or barricaded armed suspect."

For now, LAPD officers aren't laying hands on the mini choppers, Smith says. They're stored at a Homeland Security warehouse in L.A. until LAPD completes its approval process, which could take months.

But "we're already getting calls from people opposed to this," Smith allows.

Among them is Hamid Khan, organizer for the Stop LAPD Spying coalition. The drones point to the further militarization of LAPD, which L.A. Weekly detailed in February in "Forget the NSA, the LAPD Spies on Millions of Innocent Folks."

Khan warns of LAPD "growing their already huge arsenal. It may seem a small thing, but then the whole, hidden apparatus comes into play," with ever more private information flowing into those data-crunching federal fusion centers.

The ACLU, meanwhile, agrees that drones may be helpful in SWAT or rescue situations. However, "Even if limited in this way, drones pose serious privacy concerns," says Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. He notes that their snooping potential can be enhanced by facial-recognition software and eavesdropping, airborne microphones.

This unfolds at the same time that Chief Beck continues to report that L.A. is the safest it's been since the 1950s. If police promise a no-snooping protocol in today's far less violent and mellow L.A., will they really leave the drones on the shelf?

Look what ex–L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca did in Compton, another urban-core city where crime and violence have plunged: In 2012, Baca employed a contractor to circle Compton all day in a Cessna filled with special cameras — to take snapshots of Compton crime and identify lawbreakers in action, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Compton's young, reform-minded new mayor, Aja Brown, is unimpressed.

She told one reporter, "There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily."

A Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, Nicole Nishida, argues, "Citizens weren't notified because cameras were already installed in Compton on the ground," suggesting that Baca's move was merely a bureaucratic change and citizens didn't need to know about it.

Similar arguments could be made in Los Angeles over LAPD's potentially sneakier, tiny drones.

LAPD's Smith insists, "The plan has to have the support of the public. If not, we move on." Maybe the drone plan goes south — perhaps literally, from Seattle to L.A. to a shelf in San Diego.

See also: Forget the NSA, the LAPD Spies on Millions of Innocent Folks


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