LAPD's new air drone program will respect privacy, Chief Beck says

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said Wednesday he would seek public opinion and assistance from privacy groups before using two unmanned aerial systems the department said it received from the Seattle Police Department.

"I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment," Beck said. "We're going to thoroughly vet the public's opinion on the use of the aerial surveillance platforms."


Beck said the department was putting together a team of privacy advocates led by the American Civil Liberties Union to help craft policies the agency might use when deploying the drones.

"I want to make sure their decision is factored into any policies," he said.

Beck said the drones would be useful during police standoffs or when officers are searching for a suspect.

When the LAPD announced the drone program last month, officials were at pains to make it clear the LAPD doesn't intend to use the new hardware to keep watch from above over an unsuspecting public. If they're used at all, the remote-controlled aircraft will be called on only for "narrow and prescribed uses" that will be made clear to the public, a statement said.

That, LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Smith said at the time, would include situations involving barricaded suspects or hostages in which police need to see inside a building as they decide how to respond.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department recently came under criticism for flying a small airplane equipped with high-powered cameras over Compton for several days without alerting the city's residents of the video dragnet.

Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, praised the LAPD for being up-front about the acquisition but raised concerns about the department using them, even in a limited fashion. The potential for abuse, he said, is high.

Villagra highlighted news reports showing Seattle officials abandoned the idea of using the aircraft after a public outcry over them.

The ACLU, he said in a statement, "questions whether the marginal benefits ... justify the serious threat to privacy an LAPD drone program could pose."