Civilian oversight panel hears guidelines for LAPD use of drones

Yvonne Michelle Autry speaks against a proposed LAPD drone policy at the Police Commission meeting Tuesday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Department released formal guidelines on its proposal to fly drones during a one-year pilot program, spurring questions and concerns among members of a civilian oversight panel and the public at a contentious meeting Tuesday.

“Our challenge is to create a policy that strikes a balance, that promotes public safety, the safety of our officers and does not infringe on individual privacy rights,” Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala told the Los Angeles Police Commission at the packed meeting.

Before outlining the guidelines, Girmala reviewed initial feedback from the community on the proposed drone initiative. Of 1,675 emails, only about 6% were positive and encouraged the LAPD to incorporate the new technology.

The Police Commission must approve the pilot program before any of the unmanned aircraft are flown. On Tuesday, the panel agreed to post the proposed guidelines online for two weeks for further public input.

If approved, drones— referred to by the LAPD as small Unmanned Aerial System — will be flown only during specific incidents involving barricaded suspects, active shooters, potential explosives, hostages, natural disasters, hazardous materials, search and rescue operations, and in searches for armed criminals.


Each flight must be approved by a commander on scene as well as a deputy chief. An assistant chief, the police chief and two police commissioners would also be notified. The drones “shall not be deployed or used in violation of the law or Constitution,” the guidelines said, meaning police would still need to get search warrants if necessary.

The drones also “shall not be deployed or used with any weapons capabilities including any nonlethal or less-than-lethal weapon systems.”

LAPD Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill acknowledged the overwhelming community disapproval of drones and fears of creeping militarization. She also addressed unease about the aircraft invading residents’ privacy.

“It is a legitimate public concern and something that … I’m grappling with and suspect will be grappling with in a much more significant manner as we move forward,” she said.

The guidelines call for the LAPD to document and review requests for using drones, whether they are flown. Each request will be logged and forwarded to department higher-ups and two police commissioners, as will monthly inspections and quarterly reports.

At the end of the yearlong pilot, a full report will be presented to the Police Commission, which will then decide whether to continue using the devices.

The use of drones by law enforcement has become a lightning-rod topic in L.A., where public criticism has dogged both the LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Three years ago, public outcry helped ground two LAPD drones before they were ever flown. Last week, a civilian panel that advises but has no authority over the Sheriff’s Department called on that agency to ground its drone.

After LAPD brass revealed in August their desire to test out the devices, dozens of residents voiced concern at community meetings. Many said they worried that the LAPD would put weapons on the drones or use them to spy on innocent people. They also were wary of “mission creep” — the idea that police would steadily, quietly expand use of the devices.

Some activists said the public meetings were just for show.

The LAPD “does not really have a desire to be responsive to the community but rather make a show of engaging in a public process,” Melanie Ochoa, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

The meeting grew increasingly heated during public comment with activists chanting “fire Charlie Beck,” referring to the LAPD chief. Commissioners adjourned the meeting before Beck could address the panel.

McClain-Hill and other commissioners emphasized that the LAPD has not yet implemented a drone program. After two weeks of additional feedback, the LAPD will seek final approval of the pilot program.

“This is not a perfect process,” McClain-Hill said. “But it’s what we got.”