The first mistake the San Jose Police Department made was buying a drone without first finding out if the community was comfortable with it.
The second was fumbling requests for information when people heard rumors.
The third, after the ACLU and others raised alarms, was responding in essence: Trust us!
Which was not an option. See numbers one and two.
On Tuesday the department finally issued a real apology for all this. OK. Apology accepted.
Now how about the mayor and city council?
Police agencies need to be sensitive to public opinion to be effective, but they're not elected. The folks who've gotten off the hook here are Mayor Chuck Reed and the City Council. They passed the drone purchase as part of the consent calendar for items so routine they don't require debate. Now they need to publicly pass a requirement to keep the drone in its box until rules have been set for its use -- including transparency, outside oversight and accountability.
And those rules will need to be in an ordinance, not just police department policy.
Other communities -- San Francisco and Alameda counties, as examples -- have rejected buying drones for law enforcement based on their communities' response. Fear of being spied upon by government in our homes and meeting places is very real; it's been done in living memory in this country, most notably on civil rights and anti-war activists -- nearly always with a public safety justification at the time. And that was before technology of various kinds made spying easier.
Still, drones could help find missing people, assess damage in a disaster area or, the stated purpose of San Jose's drone, help disarm bombs. It's one more piece of ethically-neutral technology that can be used for good or ill. We need a public consensus on whether it's possible to sufficiently control the use so that good wins out.
Perhaps through community outreach and public discussion, the San Jose City Council can arrive at rules and oversight provisions that make residents comfortable with a drone. We'll keep an open mind. But given the way this has gotten started, don't be surprised if the cops end up having to wrap it up and send it back.
©2014 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)