On May Day, the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission (PJC) and the Berkeley Police Review Commission (PRC) held a town hall on the issue of drones in Berkeley, which is part of Alameda County. County Sheriff Greg Ahern’s plans to purchase a drone, made public in fall of last year, spurred activists to push for a public hearing in February. The hearing was packed with residents of the county who were vocally opposed to the purchase. Without a clear policy, Sheriff Ahern would potentially be able to lend his drone to the Berkeley Police Department and other cities. He would also be able to fly his drone into Berkeley if he were in pursuit of a suspect.
In December of last year, the City Council started discussing a potential drone policy for the City of Berkeley. While the PJC recommended that Berkeley be a no-drone zone, some of the city council members were convinced that an all out ban was not ideal. They felt that drones could be used for “natural disasters, to locate missing persons or assist in crime investigations.” After voting down the PJC’s proposal, the council directed the PJC, along with the PRC and the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission to work together to make a recommendation.
The May 1st town hall featured overviews of the legal concerns drones raise from attorney Linda Lye of the ACLU of Northern California, who made it clear why drones are “qualitatively different” from other forms of aerial surveillance. Jennifer Urban, Professor and Co-Director at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley, explained that courts are much slower than technological change, meaning that Fourth Amendment jurisprudence can lag years behind the widespread implementation of technology like drones. The upshot of her analysis? Community action and legislative fixes are the necessary response.
Parker Higgins, privacy activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF) emphasized the technical aspects of drones and how they affect privacy, and Neil Satterlund of Alameda County Against Drones (ACAD) emphasized concerns around mission creep, meaning hat drones would inevitably be used for purposes far beyond what they were originally approved for.
One of the most powerful voices at the hearing was that of Andrea Pritchett of Berkeley Copwatch. She succintly explained why a no-drones zone was the best solution. Reflecting on Copwatch’s documentation of existing abuses of police power in Berkeley, Andrea stated that regulations on the use of drones such as those suggested by the ACLU would be:
wonderful in a climate with effective police accountability. In the absence of a way to control the police, even the best guidelines, restrictions, suggestions, are not really gonna have an impact.