Police hate the word “drone” because they know the idea of flying robots patrolling the skies is, to many people, a bit too reminiscent of a cyber-punk dystopian hellscape. So when the Seattle Police Department announced that its two drones had gone off to Southern California “to try to make it in Hollywood,” it never used that word, calling them “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” and “mini-helicopters,” hoping that might help its friends at the Los Angeles Police Department avoid a public relations disaster like the one that had forced their department to give away its high-tech surveillance toys.
Yeah, it didn't work.
Soon after news of the gift-wrapped drones spread, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was forced to declare that his department wouldn't actually be using them—not just yet, anyway. “I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment,” he proclaimed, saying he would seek input from the public before ever allowing a drone to fly over the city. As of now, the city's drones are stashed away in a warehouse owned by the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, the LAPD insists the fear over drones is much ado about nothing, with a spokesperson telling the Los Angeles Times that if the department ever does decide to deploy them, it will only be for “narrow and prescribed uses.” But on Thursday, outside City Hall, a coalition of community groups and civil liberties advocates offered some feedback: hell no.
“Drones don't make us safer, but they do make us less free,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council, which represents Southern California's oft-surveilled mosques. He was one of a half-dozen speakers at a press conference organized by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, all of whom expressed concern that drones flying over LA will mean a loss of rights for the city's residents.
To be sure, the drones collecting dust in that warehouse are nothing like the ones that occasionally wipe out wedding parties in Pakistan and Yemen. Unlike the menacingly named Predators and Reapers deployed by the military, the Draganflyer X6 (available now for $8,895) is not equipped with any weapons, much less Hellfire missiles. In fact, it's closer to a toy helicopter than a tool of mass murder. It does, however, have a camera that is capable of providing “crystal clear, high resolution images” of the ground below, according to the manufacturer. That, say the critics, is what makes the use of drones a 20.1-megapixel invasion of privacy.
Letting the LAPD use drones will only “exacerbate the flagrant violation of privacy rights” by “normalizing continued surveillance,” wrote Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition in a letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti. Earlier this year, the LAPD was caught scanning and storing the license plate number of every car that passed by one of its cameras, reasoning that everyone is a suspect for something. This is not a department known for being overly concerned with (other) people's privacy. Why trust them with drones?
Activists I spoke to said we shouldn't even be talking about it.
“We don't need a discussion about their value, we don't need to come up with laws on how to use them—we just don't need them, period,” said Eden Jequinto, a law student at UCLA. Jequinto was part of a group of activists who staged a short theatrical presentation intended to demonstrate some of the dangers posed by drones. While bemused old reporters looked on, a woman in a robot suit used a bullhorn to shout commands to a "drone" held aloft by a man with a stick. After 30 erratic seconds in the air, she "lost contact" with the drone, which then came crashing down into a screaming crowd below.
One reason LA doesn't need drones is that it already has the most extensive aerial surveillance program in the United States. For those living in poor or mixed-income neighborhoods, the sound of a police helicopter hovering above is near-constant, and good luck watching Netflix on a laptop when one's circling over your house (this is personal.) The LAPD has 17 of these things and it flies them at least 20 hours a day.
Still, drones have the potential to be even more invasive. “Helicopters take a lot of money,” said Xander Snyder, an organizer with “Restore the Fourth,” an anti-surveillance group. Drones, by contrast, “will become cheaper and cheaper,” he said at Thursday's press conference, which “essentially means that they'll be affordable to fly 24/7, maintaining watch on areas where it simply wouldn't be cost-effective with helicopters.”
Activists also fear that drones could someday be used for more than just watching people. A South African company has designed a drone armed with “non-lethal” guns that can fire up to “4,000 pepper-spray paintballs,” according to a report from The Guardian. Called the “Skunk Riot Control Copter,” the manufacturer claims its already shipped 25 of them to an international mining company. Given that American police departments already use chemical weapons, why wouldn't they want to someday shoot them from a drone? “Officer safety,” after all, “is the number one issue,” as one police chief put it.
It would seem we're headed there. On a trip to Israel earlier this year, LAPD Deputy Chief Jose Perez “lit up when talking about the HoverMast, a new tethered drone” that's being used by the Israeli military. “That was incredible,” he told the Jewish Journal. The LAPD was ostensibly in Israel to share “best practices” for policing, which according to Horace Frank, commander of the LAPD Information Technology Bureau, was “just a euphemism for: We're here to steal some of your great ideas. And a lot of great ideas and technology, indeed, you do have here in Israel.”
The LAPD already possesses a whole stash of military gear, including three grenade launchers and three mine-resistant vehicles. Why? As Frank told an audience in Israel: because it's at war. “Our needs are truly similar,” he said. “In fact, we are much more alike than dis-alike. As civilized nations, we are all confronted with, in many cases, the same enemy: The ever-growing threat of terrorism and other major criminal elements.”
Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition told me that activists have requested a meeting with Mayor Eric Garcetti but that so far they've been brushed off; told that he's too busy to talk with anyone about drones. Earlier in the week, however, Garcetti's office promised to arrange a meeting between anti-drone activists and the deputy mayor for public safety, Eileen Decker. A date has not yet been set for that meeting, but Khan said it's a nice first step—and not enough.
“We’re going to keep the pressure on the mayor because, ultimately, it’s an administrative decision,” he said. “The mayor’s the chief executive of the city and he’s going to have to make a decision.”
The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
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