Crime & Justice

Oversight commission asks LA Sheriff to halt drone program, but he refuses

LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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The civilian commission that oversees the L.A. Sheriff's Department voted 5-4 Thursday to ask Sheriff Jim McDonnell to ground the department's drone program, but he refused, saying it's "too important as a public safety tool."  The episode highlights the panel's inability to prescribe department policy.

The Sheriff’s Department has one drone, which it has used five times since it started deploying the aircraft in January, according to McDonnell. It can only be used for armed hostage situations, bomb squad operations, and search and rescue, the sheriff says.

In a statement issued after the vote, McDonnell said the drone "is too important as a public safety tool to ground the program," adding that his responsibility to protect the public "includes using whatever tools necessary and available that can save the life of a human being."

The sheriff went on: "I will not face the loved ones of a victim whose life could have been saved by our ability to deploy" a drone. "I cannot imagine meeting with the spouse or parent of a fallen deputy that, yes, we could have done more."

McDonnell said the department has used the drone "judiciously." The five times it has been used include a search-and-rescue mission for a missing 5-year-old Pasadena boy and two "active shooter situations where the [drone] allowed for the safe search for additional victims," he added.

"The public input ... we have received ... has been overwhelmingly supportive of the [drone] program under the strict guidelines that we have established," McDonnell said. 

The drone "is unarmed, will remain unarmed, [and] will not be used in any manner that violates the constitutional rights of individuals," said the sheriff. 

Under the sheriff's rules, only a handful of department officials can authorize use of the drone, and in tactical situations a command officer must approve its deployment. The sheriff has said that these safeguards address critics' concerns about "mission creep" – the idea that drones eventually could be armed and/or used to spy on people not suspected of a crime. 

The oversight commission has no formal authority over the sheriff; its only power is the bully pulpit.

Before McDonnell issued his statement, commission member Hernan Vera said, "I'm thrilled we voted to ground the drones." Asked if the commission's power would be diminished if McDonnell rejected its recommendation, he said, "No, I don't think so," and added, "we'll continue to work with the sheriff no matter what happens."

Vera said it was important for the panel to be sensitive to the concerns of "over-policed minority communities" about privacy and the possible arming of the drone.

A "profoundly disappointed" commission Chairman Robert Bonner predicted after the vote that McDonnell "is almost certain to reject our recommendation ... Now we've lost credibility with the sheriff," he said. "We shot ourselves in the foot."

The drone "is a tool that will save lives of deputies and it is a tool that will save the lives of citizens in our community and [the sheriff] can’t responsibly say I’ll just ground these things," said Bonner.

Verja joined commission members Patti Giggans, Sean Kennedy, Heather Miller and Priscilla Ocen in voting for the resolution recommending that McDonnell ground the drone.

Bonner was joined by J.P. Harris, Lael Rubin and Xavier Thompson in voting no.

Jamie Garcia of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which opposes the use of drones, applauded the commission's vote. 

"The sheriff cannot be trusted" not to weaponize the drone and use it for surveillance, he said. "Grounding the drones is exactly what needs to happen."

The oversight panel originally was set to vote Thursday on a proposal that would have kept the drone program in place, but would have asked McDonnell to promise that he will never arm his drones. It also would have called on him to notify the commission within 48 hours whenever a drone was deployed, and it would have recommended that he reduce the length of time the department keeps drone video from 10 years to two years.

When the department started using the drone earlier this year, it became the first law enforcement agency in L.A. County to do so.

A majority of the oversight commission had urged McDonnell in July to ground the drone, citing concerns about privacy and the potential trauma to people caused by quiet unmanned aircraft overhead.

The panel was divided over a set of recommended restrictions, including that McDonnell "explicitly and unequivocally" state his opposition to arming any drones used by the department. It didn’t hold a formal vote at the time on whether to recommend grounding the drone.

Hundreds of police and fire departments have drones, and many law enforcement leaders see drones as an important part of policing in the future – particularly in urban areas.

In California, approximately 30 police agencies use them. Across the nation, nearly 350 police, sheriff, fire and emergency medical agencies have drones, according to The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

The LAPD has had two drones since 2014, but it has never used them. It has asked the L.A. Police Commission to approve a one-year pilot project in which specially-trained officers would have access to one drone for things such as search-and-rescue operations, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response and incidents involving barricaded and armed suspects.

This story has been updated.