The San Jose Police Department has become the first Bay Area law enforcement agency to acquire a drone, department officials confirmed Wednesday, but guidelines for its use have not been developed.
Department officials got the unmanned aircraft in January for just under $7,000 in federal grant money for the purpose of aiding the department bomb squad in assessing threats, police spokesman Officer Albert Morales told The Chronicle on Wednesday.
Because the Century NEO 660 V2 hexacopter was purchased with federal grant money, Morales said, the drone will be available to 13 other bomb squads around the Bay Area, including law enforcement agencies in San Francisco and Oakland.
San Jose police have kept this information mostly under wraps, but a records request by Vice’s Motherboard and MuckRock made the purchase public – after officials initially denied the claims.
Law enforcement drones have long been opposed by civil rights activists concerned about the aircrafts’ potential to lead to unwarranted searches and unauthorized surveillance.
“Once you get a tool, if there aren’t strong safeguards in place, it’s just ripe for abuse,” said Nicole Ozer, an attorney who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Civil Liberties Project.
The opposition has been enough to prevent other local law enforcement agencies like the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office from acquiring drones.
San Francisco police’s recent bid for an unmanned aircraft also failed.
But Morales said that, at the moment, the drone is just “a tool” that will be used by the bomb squad.
“Our standard answer is that it’s a tool – it’s a tool that we’re going to use,” Morales said. “If it saves the life of a bomb technician that’s out there doing a bomb assessment and he can utilize it to get to a position that he usually won’t be able to, then it’s worth it.”
In a grant application for the drone, San Jose bomb squad Sgt. Douglas Wedge said a drone costs 95 percent less than the bomb robots in use by most bomb squads, and would require “virtually no down time in training.”
The San Jose police bomb squad responded to 86 incidents from fiscal year 2013 to 2014, Morales said. The squad consists of one sergeant and one full-time officers, as well as five other patrol officers who respond to incidents as needed, he said.
Though Morales said the drone will be used only by the bomb squad, the police department is still in the process seven months later of drafting its policies for drone use.
The department also still has not applied for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drone. Morales said he can’t say when the department guidelines will be completed, nor when the application will be submitted.
That’s problematic, Ozer and the ACLU said.
“In Alameda County, the sheriff’s department said they wanted to get a drone for search and rescue,” Ozer said. “We later found documents that they wanted to use it for surveillance.
“Today, the San Jose Police Department may say the drone will be used to inspect bombs,” she continued. “But tomorrow, they may decide they want to use it to survey communities of color. That’s why having a policy is important.”
Most concerning, Ozer said, is that San Jose police and the San Jose City Council that approved the agreement with the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative did not seek public input on the purchase.
“The big picture is that the purchase of drones or other surveillance equipment shouldn’t be able to fly under the community radar screen,” she said. “It’s incredibly alarming when cities are buying surveillance technology that can be incredibly invasive and the community doesn’t have any ability to speak up and voice their concerns about whether or not a plan like this should go forward.”
Legislation awaiting approval in the California Senate would prevent law enforcement agencies from using drones without a warrant, except for emergency situations, traffic accidents or to inspect for “illegal vegetation.”
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle