In some respects, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell's announcement that his department had purchased and was planning to use drones (or as he prefers to call them, "unmanned aircraft systems") was refreshing.
It's certainly better than the 2012 Compton fiasco, in which the department secretly deployed a spy plane over that city and recorded surveillance video without notifying Compton's elected leaders — or its residents. That kind of arrogant and unrestrained law enforcement intrusion, without vetting or oversight, is simply not tolerable.
This time, at least, the sheriff went public first, displaying one of his new drones for the media and vowing to use them in limited situations only, such as hostage rescues and other emergencies in which it is difficult or dangerous for first-responders to go in person. The remote-controlled flying devices would be deployed incident by incident, he said, and would not be used for surveillance.
So that's a half-step forward. But it's nowhere near enough.
Like all new technologies that could impinge on civil liberties, police drones are controversial, and with good reason. Once in law enforcement hands, they are too easy to misuse. The sheriff may promise that drones would be deployed in limited circumstances only, but there will be successor sheriffs not similarly bound. And besides, the department appears to have kept for itself the discretion to decide just what kind of situation constitutes a drone-worthy emergency. A hostage rescue becomes a chase after suspects, which becomes a tail, which becomes a stakeout, which becomes general snooping — much like the license plate readers and facial recognition technology that some agencies purchased to track suspects but that have been used to compile databases and track pretty much anyone.
Critics also argue that drones can too easily be weaponized, an assertion that is not far-fetched. Recall that the Dallas police chief sent an armed land-based drone — a robot — into a gun battle to blow up a suspected sniper. It was a plan that was hatched in the heat of the moment, and who is to say that it was wrong to use the tools at hand to protect lives and end a threat? But using tactics and weapons of war in a civilian emergency can too easily become the norm.
One can trust Sheriff McDonnell — and we do — and still be extremely nervous about such technologies being deployed without careful vetting and oversight. That's the entire point of creating a sheriff's civilian oversight commission, a step McDonnell supported.
A sheriff's drone program should not be simply unveiled as a done deal. It should be crafted in consultation with civil-liberties groups and other interested parties and vetted in public, in a process that weighs the potential benefits against the intrusion into privacy. Its operational restrictions should be documented in a written, binding, enforceable policy that is subject to periodic review in public. It should also be subjected to auditing and oversight.
Some years ago, the Los Angeles Police Commission studied, debated and gave final approval to a policy on police use of flashlights — a very simple technology that was being used as a baton. If oversight is appropriate for deployment of flashlights, it's certainly warranted for something as potentially intrusive as drones.
Too much bureaucratic intervention into the purview of the independently elected sheriff, or in the day-to-day operations of his department? Not in the least. Public process and procedure are the essence of civilian oversight of law enforcement.
It is appropriate, then, that Supervisor Hilda Solis on Tuesday called on the inspector general and the new Civilian Oversight Commission to look into the program, evaluate it and make recommendations.
In fact, while Solis' motion is couched in the diplomatic language of Los Angeles County government, the sheriff's drone program is an important test of the commission, which meets for the first time on Thursday. The commission should demonstrate to the sheriff the wisdom of participating in a public process before unveiling his next controversial program.
Some civil libertarians argue that no law enforcement agency should even possess drones, for any purpose, because history shows that such tools will inevitably be misused. But any tool — even flashlights — can be misused. We have more faith in the ability of the sheriff to make responsible, limited use of drones, as long as he is working cooperatively with the oversight commission and the Board of Supervisors.