San Jose Police Try to Sell Public on Drones

The San Jose Police Department has purchased and would like to use a Century NEO 660 Hex-Rotor with a Go-Pro camera attached. (Credit: Century Helicopter Products)

The San Jose Police Department will try to make a case Saturday at a public outreach meeting about its desire to use the drone it purchased in January -- without City Council approval or public discussion. The agency has been trying ever since to respond to charges that it needs to be more open about why it wants to use drones.

At a November meeting at City Hall of the San Jose Neighborhoods Commission, Deputy Police Chief Dave Hober insisted the agency just wants to use its drone for things like search-and-rescue missions and to help the bomb squad check potential threats from a distance.

"And also," Hober added, "for potential issues where somebody’s life could be immediately in danger, like an active shooter, or hostage, or barricade situation. A rough proposal was outlined in a PowerPoint presentation.

Despite the limits of the proposal, critics like Charlotte Casey of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center argued that the public is wary, given the way drones are used for international warfare. "I understand that they [domestic drones] are not armed," Casey said during the public comment period of the Nov. 13 meeting, "but the idea right away makes people fearful."

There's another fear, expressed by many from civil libertarians to Muslim-American rights groups: "mission creep," the gradual expansion of the list of possible uses for drones after a police department has gotten an initial go-ahead.

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The San Jose Police Department is not the only California law enforcement agency to  purchase small unmanned aerial surveillance devices. The LAPD has as well, and Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern recently announced that he used money from his own department to purchase drones after being blocked from using federal money. Here's the general order.

In November, the ACLU issued a report on the increasing use of digital surveillance by law enforcement agencies in California. On a recent edition of KQED Newsroom, Nicole Ozer of the ACLU of Northern California said, "We see cities and counties up and down the state of California spending vast sums on surveillance technology: everything from license plate readers to facial recognition to drones.  ... More than $65 million. And with little to no public debate, very little consideration of the costs and benefits and very few policies in place to make sure that misuse doesn't happen."


Ozer went on to say, "What we've seen consistently is the inconsistency that's happening up and down the state. ... Maybe there are policies in place for body cameras, but there are no policies in place for facial recognition." Ozer wants to see a consistent conversation happening across technologies, "and that these basic questions get answered before any programs go forward."

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed AB1327, which would have required a warrant every time police sought to deploy a drone. The bill also would have required the police and other public agencies to notify the public when a drone was deployed and to destroy any images, footage or data obtained by the drone. In his veto message, Brown said the bill was too narrow and “could impose requirements beyond what is required by either the Fourth Amendment or the privacy provisions in the California Constitution.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is still trying to determine how to regulate its use to protect aircraft. While that process continues, private drone use by filmmakers, scientists and hobbyists is skyrocketing. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently announced she intends to introduce a bill to strengthen federal laws. Her statement also urged the FAA to get a move on, noting "it must aggressively confront this challenge now, before an airliner is brought down.”

San Jose Police spokesman Albert Gonzales says the department will not use its drone until it gets FAA approval, and the San Jose City Council has an opportunity to review and influence the agency's drone policy.

Saturday's community outreach meeting, hosted by the Neighborhoods Commission, will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at San Jose City Hall, 200 East Santa Clara St., in the Wing, Committee Room 120.