Image: Richard Masoner
This story has been updated.
In May 2013, the Department of Homeland Security awarded police in San Jose, California, $418,000 in grants, including $8,000 to purchase a drone for the San Jose Police Department’s bomb squad. But when we asked five months later for any records related to drones, SJPD claimed to have no documents whatsoever.
The DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) awards millions of dollars in grants each year for law enforcement, emergency response, and critical infrastructure security in major metropolitan areas. For fiscal year 2013, the Bay Area UASI group received more than $27 million for a wide range of projects, a fraction of which was slotted to SJPD’s unmanned aerial vehicle.
Update 7:15 PM EST: In a response to Motherboard and MuckRock today, the San Jose Police Department acknowledged that its bomb squad purchased a drone in January 2014 with $8,000 in UASI grant funds.
With regard to the October 2013 records request response, a spokesperson explained that "the R&D Unit was not aware of the UASI grant request that had been submitted by another unit of the police department."
"Following your initial request in October 2013 regarding any San Jose procurement of a UAV, R&D checked with the appropriate staff in the police department regarding any relevant vendor payments or documentation for such a purchase," replied Tamara Becker, San Jose Open Government Manager.
"Since UASI grant funding had not yet been approved, either by UASI or by the City Council, no purchase had been made, and therefore they found no purchasing documents that would have been responsive at the time of your request," she wrote.
The request sent to the SJPD in October 2013, however, included sections regarding research into and grant applications for drone units, and not just procurement documents themselves.
San Jose's quest for a police drone kicked into overdrive last year. Per a memorandum approved by the San Jose City Council in November 2013 and unearthed by a policy fellow at the ACLU of Northern California, the SJPD bomb squad “will acquire an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which will provide the capability to inspect suspicious packages in areas with limited accessibility or in a confined space.”
A longer description of the grant particulars estimated that the SJPD would obtain a drone by May 2014 to better “investigate suspicious packages in difficult to reach areas.”
Now, the grant process is a long and winding one, particularly when it involves multiple levels of review. Under the UASI program, individual police departments pitch their proposals to regional vetting boards, which then pass on the best for federal approval. The Bay Area UASI review panel began accepting department proposals in November 2012, and DHS made final approvals at the beginning of September 2013.
Just two weeks before the San Jose City Council approved the UASI grant allocation for a hazmat drone, the SJPD research and development team dismissed a public records request that specifically sought grant applications and award letters.
“Our Department does not use aerial drones, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), unmanned aerials (UAs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and/or unmanned aerial systems (UASs), nor does our Fiscal Unit have any records related to these items,” wrote Monique Villarreal, an R&D analyst in the SJPD chief’s office, on October 16, 2013.
The department was required to submit its final proposal ahead of the DHS award allocation in September 2013 at least, and almost certainly several months earlier. We’ve submitted an additional records request for San Jose police department drone documents, including all grant materials, invoices and protocols prepared for the SJPD bomb squad. The SJPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This article has been updated to include comment from the SJPD.