Anyone who’s lived in L.A. knows that helicopters—particularly, ones manned by the LAPD—are a staple of the city’s skies. Now, a small fleet of drones will be permanently added to the department’s surveillance arsenal, raising concerns from civil liberties advocates.
The permanent addition of drones was approved unanimously by a five-member civilian police commission on Tuesday, reports the L.A. Times.
There are limits. Drones can only be used by the LAPD in specific situations, like active shooters, barricaded suspects, and search warrants. Nor will they have weapons or facial recognition capability.
The LAPD already uses drones on their SWAT team and their bomb squad to help neutralize explosives and sweep for radioactive devices at large public events, the Times writes.
Some 600 other law enforcement agencies around the country, including the NYPD, use drones. But what sets the LAPD program apart—for now—is its tighter regulations, according to Assistant Chief Horace Frank. The department currently has four drones, and each use must be approved by a commander and a deputy chief, the Times reports. An annual report to the Police Commission will also document each deployment.
Still, many were not pleased with the decision that cemented drone technology as a permanent component of LAPD policing. According to the Times, upon passage of the drone regulations, members of the audience began chanting “Shame! Shame!”
A primary concern is how drones—and other high-tech weaponry—will infringe on people’s civil liberties, particularly those in vulnerable communities already subject to over-policing.
The NYPD, the country’s largest police force, has come under fire for its usage of 14 drones, two of which have “thermal imaging capabilities, a powerful zoom camera and 3D mapping” according to CNN, which cites the department. Among other situations, the NYPD said it plans to use the drones to surveil large crowds.
But as the NYCLU noted last year, this means large crowds of protesters speaking out against police brutality, immigration policy, state government or the Trump administration would be subject to surveillance.
“The NYPD’s drones are outfitted with cameras equipped with sophisticated technology and 4K resolution,” said the NYCLU. “The mere presence of these police cameras can create a chilling effect on people exercising their rights to free speech, protest, and other lawful activities.”
Michael Novick, a civil liberties activist who spoke to the L.A. Times, called the LAPD’s drone regulations “the exact definition of mission creep.”
“Now you’re upgrading. You approved a temporary pilot project. You’re going to normalize it with this step,” Novick said. “The next step will be they’ll come back and say, ‘We actually need the ability to have facial recognition.’”