Forget 2049. Los Angeles’ Blade Runner-esque future of a world watched by robots is here.
On Tuesday, a civilian oversight panel gave the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) the OK to begin a year-long drone trial, primarily for reconnaissance in “tactical missions” conducted by SWAT.
The decision came after a contentious meeting and protest by privacy advocates who oppose the use of drones by law enforcement.
As the third largest police force in the nation behind New York and Chicago, the trial makes the LAPD the largest police force in the nation to use drones. The Chicago PD and New York PD confirmed in official statements to Mashable that neither police force deploys drones.
But that doesn’t mean drone use by law enforcement isn’t already widespread. According to an April 2017 study from Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency units in the U.S. have acquired drones, with local law enforcement agencies taking the largest share of the drone pie.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the LAPD will use camera-mounted drones for reconnaissance purposes, not general surveillance or as weapons. They will only be deployed during missions undertaken by SWAT that have been deemed particularly dangerous. And the LAPD has promised stringent limitations and oversight. The LAPD did not immediately respond to Mashable when asked about the benefits provided and risks posed by the use of drones.
The LAPD initially received two drones from the Seattle PD in 2014, but quickly retired them after public outcry, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.
But the privacy and surveillance concerns that grounded the “Unmanned Aerial Systems” in 2014 resurfaced during the civilian oversight panel. Video depicts jeers from the audience at the oversight meeting, coupled with disbelief that the LAPD would make good on self-imposed drone use restrictions.
ACLU attorney Melanie Ochoa said that mistrust of the LAPD is at core of community and organizational opposition to the drone pilot program. She said that skepticism that the LAPD will abide by its own drone guidelines stems from their past use of advanced surveillance technology without widespread community knowledge. Additionally, the alleged misuse of the SWAT team in low-level drug busts contributes to fear that drones have the potential to be deployed beyond the limited “tactical” missions for which they have been designated.
“The community has to have real faith in their law enforcement that they’re not going to abuse that technology any time that drones are being incorporated into law enforcement,” Ochoa said. “And unfortunately that is not present in Los Angeles.”
Ochoa also said the ACLU and public opposed the use of drones because the commission was not executed in good faith. Just 7 percent of citizens who responded during the public comment period were in favor of drone use by police.
“On its face the LAPD engaged in an open public process for soliciting input on drones before it adopted a specific policy,” Ochoa said. “But in reality it appears that much of the process was just a farce and it doesn’t seem that the police commission ever actually intended to respond to the public’s views.”
People protested in the streets to oppose the drone policy and test.
Citing surveillance concerns and lack of public responsiveness, organizations such as #BlackLivesMatter-LA and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition have also spoken out against the decision.
Groups such as the ACLU will continue monitoring the use of drones throughout the year-long pilot.
Later, if the public continues to oppose the use of drones, Ochoa said, “Then hopefully the commission will actually be responsive to their concerns and see that they have not been alleviated through the pilot program.”
Though Ochoa sees how drones could be useful in policing for surveillance on dangerous missions, she does not see that as justification for the program’s implementation in the wake of the public’s privacy concerns. And when asked whether the ACLU thinks the potential risks to privacy outweigh the potential benefits to law enforcement, Ochoa said, “Yes. And if that’s not true, it has not been shown otherwise.”
“I think the fact that something can be useful,” Ochoa said, “should not be the sole criteria by which we are judging whether or not police should have some kind of technology.”