Majority of civilian oversight body wants L.A. County sheriff to stop flying drone

Citing concerns over surveillance, safety and potential trauma to the public, a majority of Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight commissioners Thursday expressed that they want Sheriff Jim McDonnell to stop flying a drone used in law enforcement operations.

The aircraft was unveiled by the Sheriff’s Department in January and has been deployed four times, mostly in search-and-rescue missions. The department has said the 20-inch-long unmanned aircraft system, which cost $10,000, would strictly be used in high-risk tactical operations — such as fires, bomb detection and hostage situations — and not for surveillance.

But activists have warned of possible “mission creep,” saying they’re worried the drone could be used for random spying on residents and could one day be armed or be deployed as a weapon itself.

In 2012, the Sheriff’s Department used a plane to secretly shoot video footage of the streets of Compton in order to catch criminals. The operation was widely criticized once it was discovered, particularly because community members said they were not informed or consulted about the project.

The Los Angeles Police Department acquired two drones in 2014 but never launched them after protests about potential surveillance uses.

Four of the eight members present at the commission’s monthly public meeting Thursday voted against authorizing a set of strict recommendations that would have spelled out how the department should manage its drone program.

One of the recommendations was for McDonnell to “explicitly and unequivocally state” he would not allow the drone to be armed, and other suggestions called for precise reporting on the use of the device.

The four members voting against the recommendations — which had been prepared by an ad-hoc group of commissioners who spent several weeks studying the drone matter — said at the meeting and afterward that they oppose the department’s use of drones altogether.

Some of those members left open the possibility they might consider backing the use of the drone after more careful study and more trust is built up within the communities the Sheriff’s Department serves.

A fifth commissioner — Priscilla Ocen, a Loyola Law School professor who served on the drone ad-hoc committee — was not at the meeting but wrote a report issued Thursday explaining her support for grounding the drone.

Several people voiced concerns that the aircraft could someday be armed, as in North Dakota, where police drones with less-than-lethal weapons were legalized. Some also worried that children could be especially frightened of drones.

“In communities where the police helicopter is frequently flown, children have expressed the trauma they’ve experienced, and now we’re just going to add to it,” said Nadia Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.

Yet some at the meeting argued that as long as the drone is used responsibly, the device could yield significant public safety benefits.

The technology “will save lives,” said Robert Bonner, a former federal judge who serves as the commission’s chairman. He slammed his colleagues’ decision to reject the recommendations as irresponsible, saying it leaves the department to continue using the drone without the oversight body’s guidance.

Some resistance stems from the department’s acquisition of the drone without seeking public input first.

Prompted by a recommendation from some of the oversight commissioners, the department created an online survey last month — announced in a press release and on the department’s social media pages — asking if respondents supported the use of a drone in certain high-risk operations and for other comments about the aircraft.

Based on 3,054 responses, the department issued a statement Wednesday saying that “89% of the general public favor use of LASD’s unmanned aircraft system.”

“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department continues to be open to the commission’s recommendations and has maintained transparency and a willingness to listen to the public and reassess throughout the process,” the department said in a statement. The use of the drone is “strictly controlled by detailed policies which are constitutionally and legally sound and are within compliance of all Federal Aviation Administration regulations.”

Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, who helped lead the campaigns against the LAPD’s drones and has been a vocal presence at the Sheriff Civilian Oversight meetings, said he was pleased that a majority of commissioners came out against the use of drones, but said their decision “leaves things in limbo” because the devices can still be deployed.

maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau

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UPDATES:

10:50 p.m.: This article was updated to note that some of the commissioners who voted against the recommendations left open the possibility that they might consider backing the use of the drone after more careful study and more trust is built up within the communities the Sheriff’s Department serves.

This article was originally published at 9:40 p.m.

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