Because police helicopters peering into your life aren't enough, the Los Angeles Police Department last week quietly acquired two drones.
Yep, we're talking unmanned aerial vehicles coming to a neighborhood near you. It might take some time for these things to be put on duty, however.
The LAPD says in a statement that the Draganflyer X6 drones are being grounded for now:
No decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used. They are currently in the custody of a federal law enforcement agency pending review by the LAPD and the Board of Police Commissioners, as well as the public.
The department says it obtained the drones, free of cost, from the Seattle Police Department. The LAPD says it would only fly the vehicles for “narrow and prescribed uses to prevent imminent bodily harm, for example, a hostage situation or barricaded armed suspect.”
The ACLU is concerned. The civil liberties group notes that the LAPD received the drones only after folks in Seattle rejected their use based on privacy concerns.
The organization argues that …
… they can be used for completely surreptitious surveillance that a helicopter could never perform – and could pose particular threats to privacy when combined with other technology like facial recognition software, infrared night vision cameras, or microphones to record personal conversations.
The ACLU wonders whether the LAPD should employ drones at all, saying it “questions whether the marginal benefits to SWAT operations justify the serious threat to privacy an LAPD drone program could pose.”
When the matter comes before the Police Commission, which will probably have the last say on the matter, you can probably bet the ACLU will be there:
The Police Commission should have a full public discussion of whether LA should have such an intrusive technology at all before moving forward.
We're not calling this battle for the civil libertarians just yet, though.
Keep in mind that the LAPD has been a pioneer in equipment (helicopters) and tactics (SWAT) and that the department, patrolling a nation-sized city of nearly 500 square miles, has a need for fast, efficient ways to respond to crime reports that don't involve the limited mobility of boots on the ground.
We'll be watching (even if they're not yet watching us).
[Added at 5:58 p.m.]: L.A. Police Commission President Steve Soboroff emphasized in a tweet that the LAPD doesn't technically have its hands on the drones yet (which the department said, above, in its statement explaining that ” … they are currently in the custody of a federal law enforcement agency”).
The LAPD, he writes, “will NOT have physical access until it is vetted completely and publicly in front of #Police Commission.”