Image: Mesa County, CO Sheriff's Dept.
Last week, the Los Angeles police department announced a new acquisition: two Draganflyer X6 drones, small hexacopters about three feet wide and capable of being outfitted with a range of sophisticated cameras. This makes the LAPD the largest municipal police department in the country known to possess unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance or tactical uses.
But the LAPD took pains to make it clear that it won't fly them, at least not immediately. "No decision has been made whether or not these vehicles will be used," the department said in a short press release issued yesterday.
"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," continued the statement, which referred not to drones but used the industry-preferred term, unmanned aerial vehicles. The review, it said, would only consider "narrow and prescribed uses" to prevent "imminent bodily harm, for example, a hostage situation or barricaded armed suspect."
As the press release emphasizes, these drones didn't cost Los Angeles a cent. Rather, they were a hurried hand-me-down from the Seattle Police Department, which grounded the drones before they could be used in police work due to an angry public reaction over safety and privacy concerns.
In March, we reported that Seattle police hadn't been able to get rid of their two drones, even a year after the mayor ordered them returned to the manufacturer. In 2012, the department drew criticism for failing to inform city hall about its drone purchases for more than a year. After raucous public forums, the mayor told the chief to box up the drones in February 2013.
In a March 26, 2013 blotter post, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, SPD's Public Affairs Director, wrote, "The SPD UAV program ended on February 7th. [….] While the vehicles haven't been returned to the vendor—a proposition more complex than expected—we're still working with DHS to determine their final disposition."
Another year later, our coverage may have sped up that timeline. A subsequent records request fulfilled on May 20, 2013 revealed emails between SPD and the Department of Homeland Security, which paid $82,000 to purchase the two drones in September 2010.
"Need to expidite [sic] the transfer of equipment we spoke of….. matters more urgent here," reads the subject of one email from March 25 between a state grant coordinator and a FEMA official.
An email sent by a state grant coordinator to a FEMA official in March explores options for moving Seattle's drones
Seattle police floated a range of options for getting the drones out of their inventory. The FEMA official made clear that selling the units was out of the question — "no money changing hands" was paramount—and SPD indicated that its budget wouldn't allow it to reimburse the grant cost.
FEMA grant guidelines apparently allow Seattle police to "relocate the asset where there's a need" even if that meant crossing state lines. Soon, records show, the department received emailed inquiries from police in Los Angeles as well as an undisclosed Texas agency.
The emails end there, without indicating why the honor fell to LAPD over the Texas department. MuckRock has submitted updated requests for communications among SPD, LAPD and federal officials regarding the hand-off.
In recent years, a number of police and law enforcement agencies have sought to acquire drones and have used them in real-life situations, encouraged by grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Drones owned by DHS and Customs and Border Patrol have been used to patrol US borders, and records show that the latter agency has loaned out its drones to other state and federal agencies at least 700 times. The FBI has used drones in eight criminal cases and two national security cases. Documents released to Motherboard and MuckRock indicate that local government agencies, like police in Newport News, are considering unmanned blimps as surveillance tools. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, formerly chief of the LAPD, has said that New York is interested in acquiring drones.
A police demonstration of a Draganflyer X6. Video: Orange County, FL Sheriff
If, as in Seattle, police in Los Angeles are not allowed to use the drones, it's not clear what their options for disposition are, but they would likely be required to stay within the family of police agencies receiving grants from DHS.
The LAPD, the country's second largest metropolitan police force, appears to have learned from Seattle's botched attempt at using drones, and is striving to play down its "gift."
"We wanted to be really up-front with the public that we're looking at using these down the road," a spokesman, Andrew Smith, told the LA Times. "We wanted to make sure it didn't look like we were trying to sneak these things into action." Public hearings on the drones are scheduled for later this summer, police commissioner Charlie Beck said.
Privacy concerns, which have led to police drone moratoriums in a handful of municipalities, aren't the first roadblock for the LAPD's program. Due to Federal Aviation Administration drone authorization procedures, meant to address safety concerns, it will likely be months before the LAPD will be permitted to begin even training with their new technology.