The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired some eyes in the sky.
On Friday, the department announced that it had acquired two “unmanned aerial vehicles” as gifts from the Seattle Police Department.
The Draganflyer X6 aircraft, which resemble small helicopters, are each about 3 feet wide and equipped with a camera, video camera and infrared night-vision capabilities.
In making the announcement, however, department 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 remotely controlled aircraft will be called on only for “narrow and prescribed uses” that will be made clear to the public, the statement said.
That, according to LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Smith, would include situations involving barricaded suspects or hostages in which police need to see inside a building as they decide how to respond.
“We wanted to be really up-front with the public that we’re looking at using these down the road,” Smith said. “We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were trying to sneak these things into action.”
Wanting to avoid the negative connotations the word has taken on, the department’s statement deliberately avoided referring to the aircraft as drones.
The LAPD’s skittishness underscores concerns over privacy and other sensitivities that have come up in recent years as police departments around the country have begun to experiment with surveillance technology.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department recently came under fire 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, was 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.”