Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday that he would seek assistance from privacy and civil rights groups before he would consider using two unmanned aerial systems the department received from the Seattle Police Department.
His comments came as some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, raised concerns about the use of drones by police. Beck said he’s aware of those concerns and wants to address them.
“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.”
The LAPD said it is putting together a team of privacy advocates that will include the ACLU to help craft policies the agency might use should it be allowed to deploy the drones.
“I want to make sure their decision is factored into any policies,” Beck said.
The department said it would seek approval from the Police Commission before testing the drones.
Although the department does not identify the unmanned aircraft as drones, officials said the machines would be useful during police standoffs, barricades or when officers are searching for suspects within a perimeter.
Even though the department has no official drone program, it does have other unmanned vehicles, including a remote-controlled robot, to inspect suspicious packages.
When the LAPD announced the unmanned aircraft were coming last month, officials stressed the department would deploy them for “narrow and prescribed uses” and not to keep watch over an unsuspecting public.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department recently was criticized for flying a small airplane equipped with high-powered cameras over Compton for several days without alerting the city’s residents.
Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, issued a statement: “The Los Angeles Police Department asked the ACLU of Southern California to meet and articulate our concerns about the privacy issues raised by the use of drones. We agreed to do so. The department also asked if we could recommend any other privacy experts they might consult. We agreed to do that as well. However, at this point the ACLU SoCal has no plans to participate in any process to craft policies for LAPD’s use of drones, nor have we been formally invited to lead a team of advocates to help craft such policies.
“As the ACLU has previously said, we question whether any marginal benefits of drones programs justify the serious threat to privacy they pose.”