A narrow debate over the LAPD's proposed, limited use of a pair of unmanned aircraft — popularly known as drones — is prompting a broader community conversation about the tension between technology and privacy in a city where police have not always traversed that boundary well.
FOR THE RECORD:
Drones: A Nov. 17 column by Jim Newton mischaracterized the role of the ACLU in helping formulate the LAPD's policy on drones. Although officials from the group were consulted several months ago, the ACLU is not currently working with the department on the issue and opposes deployment of the aircraft.
The LAPD acquired a pair of small drones a few months ago from the Seattle Police Department, which dropped its plans to use them after public objections. Los Angeles has not yet deployed the drones — they remain, as Chief Charlie Beck told me last week, “in the box.” Beck says he's waiting for direction from the Police Commission on what will be allowed, but the drones could be deployed in situations where suspects are barricaded or holding hostages and where an aerial view might be helpful.
It's hard to argue with that — who wouldn't want police to have better information before trying to subdue a hostage taker? But the drones are just one aspect of a profound reconsideration of the relationship between policing and privacy. Especially in the area of fighting terrorism, police are moving from solving crimes to anticipating them, aided by data mining and other technologies. The new techniques carry with them the possibility of enhancing public safety, but they give some people the creeps.
Jamie Garcia and Hamid Kahn are two of those people. They and their organization Stop LAPD Spying are leading an effort to stop the department from using drones. At their offices near skid row last week, they warned of what they see as police militarization. Other communities are wrestling with similar issues, but Garcia and Kahn note that the LAPD's history of police spying makes the debate especially important here.
In one sense, drones are not that big a deal. Unlike unmanned aircraft operated by the military and CIA, these don't carry missiles, and because they hover above ground, they can't see much that isn't already visible to a police helicopter or even a satellite. A drone, however, is smaller and more readily deployed, and for many people it changes the notion of what's private. Most of us regard our backyards, for example, as private space, but is that a reasonable expectation now that a helicopter, a satellite or a drone can peer into it without entering the property?
Similarly, a national effort to collect data on “suspicious activity” can feel awfully invasive. Activity as innocent as taking a photograph of a government building or engaging in lawful, peaceful protest can trigger alarm in post-9/11 America.
“We're all concerned about safety,” Kahn told me last week, “but at what price?” The policing paradigm, he and Garcia argued, has shifted from solving crimes to gathering, storing and sharing information. The result is an overbearing, wasteful attempt to head off future crimes.
Significant numbers of people agree, and 2,000 have so far signed a petition circulated by Stop LAPD Spying urging the department not to use its new drones.
Beck is well aware of the uneasiness that technology creates — and not just in a law enforcement context. As he pointed out in our conversation, the erosion of privacy is playing out in every sector of modern life. Cameras are ubiquitous, online activity creates information that is useful for commercial purposes and stores collect data to target advertising.
“Nobody knows more about me than the Vons where I shop,” Beck said. “We are very rapidly entering a time when everyone will know everything about everybody.”
There is, however, a special burden on law enforcement to gather and use information with care. The local Vons may know a lot about its customers, but it can't arrest them.
Recognizing that — and aware that the LAPD in the 1980s was roundly criticized for spying on its critics — Beck said he's approaching the use of drones with unusual caution. His staff is working with the ACLU to develop a draft policy on the use of the small aircraft, and they hope to present a recommendation to the Police Commission in a few weeks. The commission will then hold public hearings before finalizing a policy.
Kahn and Garcia want the department to forswear the drones altogether. That seems unlikely. Rather than leave his drones in the box, Beck proposes to operate them with clear rules and sound, civilian oversight — ideas that have been fundamental in addressing other LAPD issues such as racial bias and use of excessive force.
Having rules in place may not be much comfort to the person who looks up from his backyard and sees an LAPD drone overhead. But it could, at least, ensure that the devices are used to fight crime, not to spy or harass.