If Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck was looking for public opinion on whether the department should use drones, he got it Friday night.
L.A. Kings fans celebrating the team's Stanley Cup victory Friday night saw a drone hovering over the crowd. People began throwing plastic bottles and trash and chanting, "We want the drone." Finally a T-shirt hurled at the aircraft knocked it to the ground, where someone smashed it to pieces with a skateboard.
Nobody has claimed the damaged drone, which appeared to have been a hobbyist's version equipped with a camera. Despite some speculation Friday that it was one of two recently given to the Police Department, officials stated Monday that it was not an LAPD drone. It wasn't the same make or model as the Draganflyer X6 unmanned aerial vehicles donated by the Seattle Police Department, which handed off the drones after residents and privacy advocates there raised concerns about surveillance.
Beck has been sensitive to those concerns. This month, he said he was putting together a team of privacy and civil rights advocates to help craft policies on the use of drones — if the department decides to use them at all. The civilian Police Commission would have to sign off too.
"If unmanned aerial systems erode public confidence, we won't use them," Beck said.
The department has said the drones, which are equipped with cameras and infrared night vision capabilities, could be useful during standoffs or barricades or when searching for a suspect. Unmanned aircraft could offer views into situations that would be too dangerous for officers.
But would the potential benefit be enough to override a strong anti-drone, anti-surveillance sentiment in Los Angeles and beyond? The prospect of an eye in the sky, always watching and always recording your activity, is troubling. The technology is available and, occasionally, in use. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was criticized this year when it was revealed that a civilian aircraft flew over Compton for nine days in 2012, recording everything happening in the small city.