Alameda County says no dronesSaturday, February 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm by Nadia Kayyali
On February 14, over 100 residents of Alameda County, many of them sporting “no drones” stickers, packed the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ hearing room to tell the County’s public protection committee that they did not want the county to become the first in California to purchase a drone.
The Sheriff’s office and civil liberties advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU), Alameda County Against Drones (ACAD), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) made presentations to the supervisors. While ACLU and EFF agree that drones are acceptable for extremely limited uses and ACAD is calling for a complete ban on drones, all of the advocates agreed that the Sheriff’s proposed uses for drones were a threat to civil liberties. Linda Lye of the ACLU stated that the uses outlined in the Sheriff’s policy were:
vastly over broad. Virtually any political protest would involve some sort of arguable crime [such as jaywalking]. Information [gathered at protests] could be submitted to fusion centers, including the identify of people with unpopular political views.
The hearing stretched for 3 hours, with dozens testifying against the drone and only one in favor. Residents emphasized their concerns about safety, privacy, efficacy, and cost. They made it clear that the potential public safety benefits, which were doubtful due to the current limitations of drone technology, were not worth the almost certain erosion of civi liberties. Some cited the decision of Seattle, WA, to end use of the drones it had already purchased and deployed, noting Mayor Mike McGinn’s focus on the community:
we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority.
Much of the testimony emphasized that there was already a serious lack of trust between the community and the sheriff, partly due to his agency’s handling of Occupy Oakland, as well as his decision to assist in the deportation of hundreds of Alameda County residents under the Secure Communities program. Although the Sheriff and his department implied in the meeting that these concerns were unfounded, his statements outside the meeting were contradictory. Before the hearing, in response to a reporter’s question of whether he would deploy the drone in the case of First Amendment protected protests the Sheriff stated:
We don’t want to rule out a lot of uses.
Documents obtained by EFF also showed that he:
wanted to use the drone for activities like spying on “suspicious persons” and “large crowd control disturbances.”
Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods spoke unexpectedly at the hearing. He argued that using a drone in some situations may be acceptable, but that as outlined in the order it was not appropriate, stating:
My request is that we not be a leader in technology that could infringe on civil liberties.
Only days prior to the hearing, the Sheriff released a proposed use policy for drones which addressed few of the community’s concerns. Although the Sheriff repeatedly stated that the purpose of the drones was only for search and rescue and emergency situations, the policy included ten different uses, ranging from evidence preservation at any crime scene to apprehension of fleeing suspects. The Sheriff emphasized that he had worked with the ACLU on the policy, but Lye stated that the policy:
encourages use in precisely the way the Sheriff says will not occur. . . .The ACLU’s name has been invoked many times, but the Sheriff ignored our suggestions.
The next step for Alameda is unclear. It was first revealed that the Sheriff intended to purchase a drone in October of last year, although he began looking in to the possibility as early as October of 2011. The community and civil liberties advocates responded quickly, urging the county not to rush in to the purchase. Community advocates emphasized their concerns about militarization of police at a time when Alameda County is suffering a budgetary crises and limited social services.
After pressure, the Board referred the matter to the Public Protection committee, and yesterday’s hearing was scheduled. However, both supervisors noted that they were unclear on what action they would be taking. The purchase will likely require taxpayer funding, which would potentially have to be approved by the board. The Sheriff has also made no indication of whether he would purchase a drone against the objections of the Board or committee, although he has noted that deployment is at least a year away. Although the hearing ended without a resolution, both Supervisors expressed some concerns. Supervisor Scott Haggerty stated that the hearing left him with questions, although he seemed optimistic that the sheriff needed no oversight and that the drone would perform as the sheriff stated. Supervisor Richard Valle took a more cautionary tone, stating:
I have a real concern about the bill of rights, in particular, the Fourth amendment and the right to privacy. Those are paramount.
He seemed skeptical about the argument that potential public safety benefits trumped civil rights, and stated that he would be watching the developments at the state and federal level as well as continuing to work on the policy in Alameda County.