Los Angeles police on Friday said they have asked the city attorney's office and county prosecutors to explore whether they can legally prohibit civilians from flying drones with cameras over department-owned parking lots.
The inquiry was sparked after a South Bay man who routinely films police activity and posts the footage on his website flew his drone over the parking lot of the LAPD's Hollywood station this week and filmed squad cars going in and out.
He then posted the video on YouTube.
"What concerns us is that they are filming over private property and it's gated – you're looking at the layout of the police station, how we operate, personnel license plates," said police Lt. Michael Ling. "It's kind of like if it was your house, if they're flying over your backyard you'd start asking questions about it."
Though a sergeant who confronted the pilot and three other people said he believed filming inside the parking lot was trespassing, it may not be that clear cut. Although the Federal Aviation Administration has regulations about how private businesses and law enforcement can use drones, there are few rules covering the casual hobbyist.
A ruling by a federal oversight committee in March further complicated regulation. The National Transportation Safety Board's Office of Administrative Law Judges found in favor of a pilot who was issued a $10,000 citation for flying a drone over the University of Virginia as part of a photography project. The FAA is appealing the ruling.
The FAA said recreational drone use is generally permitted as long as pilots don't fly recklessly. Voluntary guidelines for model aircraft created in 1981 suggest flying at safe altitudes and distances away from airports, and avoiding crowds.
Police said there are some activities they consider illegal, including drones interfering with aviation activities. Using the planes to spy on neighbors would also raise red flags.
"They bring up the expectation of privacy, I'm not buying it," the drone's 42-year-old pilot, Daniel Saulmon, said of the LAPD's argument. "Suddenly they're talking about how I'm trespassing on a public sidewalk. They do not have an expectation of privacy…if you want privacy, build a roof."