Protesters fear L.A. County sheriff's drones could be used for spying

Roughly 20 people took to downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday and called on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to immediately suspend plans to deploy a drone in emergency situations, saying they feared the device will be used for warrantless surveillance.

Hamid Khan, founder of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said his group rejected the use of drones in all forms, even in response to bomb threats or hostage crises. In announcing the pilot program last week, Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the drone would not be used for surveillance, but Khan said he feared the agency could change that policy at any time.

“What this represents is the rapid escalation and militarization of police,” Khan said.

Last week, sheriff’s officials said they would use the drone only to help deputies gain crucial advantages when dealing with barricaded suspects, suspicious devices, hazardous materials situations and similar scenarios in which it would be dangerous for a deputy to approach on foot. The department will also use the drone during search-and-rescue operations and arson investigations, McDonnell said.

The department’s written policy also expressly forbids use of the drone for “random surveillance missions or missions that would violate the privacy rights of the public.” 

Sheriff’s officials also claimed last week that their agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration prevented the drone’s use for surveillance, but an FAA spokesperson said the agency regulates drone flights based only on safety, not purpose. 

Khan and others on Tuesday expressed concern about “mission creep,” pointing out that the department could change its policy on a whim and begin using the drones for surveillance.

Public opposition to drones has forestalled their use in the city of Los Angeles. Khan led protest efforts against the LAPD when the agency was considering using a pair of drones in 2014, and those devices have remained under lock and key since then.

Khan also raised the Sheriff’s Department’s past use of surveillance, reminding attendees that the agency used a plane to surveil Compton residents for nine days in 2012 without first seeking public approval. He called on the County Board of Supervisors to step in and stop the sheriff’s new drone program, criticizing McDonnell’s decision to approve use of the device without public input.

In response to the protest, the Sheriff’s Department repeated its promise that the drone would be used only to help protect deputies in potentially deadly situations.

“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Enforcement Bureau responds to high-risk tactical incidents, high-risk rescues, bomb threats, and hazardous material incidents. The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) will only be authorized for use in these extremely dangerous and threatening situations,” Capt. Jeff Scroggin, an agency spokesman, said via email. 

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed concern that police surveillance could go unchecked under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. She warned that the administration has taken a decidedly pro-police stance, pointing to opposition by Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, to federal police reform. And she said she fears citizens would have no recourse if the Sheriff’s Department began to expand its use of unmanned aerial systems.

“It further erodes community-police relations,” she said. “When Los Angeles and California move on something, we set the precedent for the rest of the country.”

In a bizarre bit of political theater, Khan’s news conference was briefly delayed by half a dozen Trump supporters who began screaming “America First!” as he tried to speak. The group, whose members were attempting to counteract a nearby pro-immigrant event, stood their ground for about 15 minutes before realizing they were at the wrong event. Some then apologized and walked away.

james.queally@latimes.com

For more breaking crime and cops news in Southern California, follow me on Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT

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UPDATES:

4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the Sheriff’s Department.

This article was originally published at 2:50 p.m.

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