Marin County, Calif., Explores Potential for Drone Program

The concept is not fully formed, officials say, but critics are already pointing to privacy concerns due to a lack of rules.

by Richard Halstead, The Marin Independent Journal / July 16, 2018
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(TNS) — The Marin County Sheriff’s Office is getting ready to launch a new “unmanned aerial systems” program.

Sheriff’s Capt. David Augustus steered away from using the word “drone” when talking about the program, set to begin in 60 to 90 days.

“I don’t like that word,” Augustus said. “Drones have an inference of military surveillance or weaponry. That’s not what these are.”

In fact, the program is still in its early stages and the department has not yet purchased any “unmanned aerial vehicles” or even determined how many it will buy.

“We’re still in the exploratory stage of that,” Augustus said. “We’re looking at two to three, maybe up to four.”

The sheriff’s department has, however, already trained four pilots to fly the vehicles, he said. The department expects to spend $20,000 to $25,000 on the program initially.

“We’re going to start small and expand it from there,” Augustus said.

This not quite ready-for-prime-time program was outed by Frank Shinneman of Sausalito during Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.

“It has recently been revealed that Sheriff Doyle is in the process of acquiring drones under the name of small unmanned aerial systems,” Shinneman said during the public open time segment of the meeting.

“The sheriff’s policy,” Shinneman said, “does not provide protection against public surveillance, it does not contain reporting on use nor does it limit the sharing of the video surveillance with other authorities including NCRICK (Northern California Regional Intelligence Center), DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and other agencies such as ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”

Shinneman asked the Board of Supervisors to “halt any future drone acquisition plans until there is a public forum justifying the need, and implementing a limited use policy which provides privacy protections from these surveillance systems.”

Legislative check

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has sponsored a bill, SB 1186, that would require law enforcement agencies to have a surveillance use policy, approved by their governing bodies, in place before the use of surveillance technology.

The bill defines surveillance technology as “any electronic device or system with the capacity to monitor and collect audio, visual, locational, thermal, or similar information on any individual or group.” This would include drones with cameras, automated license plate recognition systems and body-worn cameras.

Shinneman said it appears to him that the sheriff may be implementing the UAV program now to avoid having to comply with SB 1186 should it become law.

Shinneman said he discovered the program after filing a public records request with the sheriff’s department seeking its policies and procedures. He said prior to June, the department was not posting its policies on its website as do a number of other law enforcement agencies. The sheriff’s office began posting its policies after Shinneman raised the issue with Supervisor Kate Sears. Sears said she subsequently “reached out” to the department.

Undersheriff Michael Ridgway, however, said, “That decision was made by the sheriff without any outside inquiry or influence. Largely it was the result of trying to streamline the public’s ability to see a policy they might be interested in reviewing.”

Augustus said the devices will not be used for surveillance.

The department’s written policy lists the following “authorized missions” for the program: post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation; explosive ordnance disposal; response to hazardous material spills; search and rescue missions; public safety and life preservation missions, such as hostage situations or violent fleeing suspects; disaster response and documentation; training missions; fire response and prevention; and pursuant to a search warrant.

Augustus said it was the department’s all-volunteer, search and rescue team that was the biggest advocate for the program.

Coastal ‘recon’

Michael St. John, the team’s leader and a battalion chief with the Mill Valley Fire Department, said the team had already started experimenting with drones using two owned by team members. He said last fall the team used a hobby drone in a limited way to aid in the search for a plane that crashed in West Marin.

“Particularly in our coastal environment, we unfortunately have people fall off cliffs or go into places difficult to access,” St. John said. “The drone allows us to recon everything.”

St. John said drones can often fly at night or during bad weather when helicopters can’t fly, and they’re cheaper to fly than helicopters.

Augustus said it would have been helpful to have had a program in May when a Mill Valley man shot his landlord and the landlord’s daughter. Both the shooter and the daughter died from gunshot wounds. The incident resulted in a manhunt and a neighborhood on lockdown.

“We had helicopters but it would have been nice to have had a drone,” Augustus said.

Precedents

In 2013, privacy advocates raised a stir when Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern sought permission from Alameda County supervisors to use a federal Homeland Security grant and county taxpayer money to become the first California law enforcement agency to acquire a drone.

Ahern withdrew the request, but in December 2014 he dipped into his own budget to purchase two drones for $97,000.

Today, however, police and fire departments in more than 50 California cities and counties use drones, including the sheriff’s office in Contra Costa, Kern and El Dorado counties.

Shinneman said he believes there are valid reasons for police and fire departments to use drones.

“For rescues and a number of applications, it’s a wonderful technology,” Shinneman said. “It’s really a question of who is looking, how often, when and what can they do with the information.

“The key thing for all of us to ask for,” he said, “is that proposals are put out in front of the public.”

©2018 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.