Daniel Saulmon, who sometimes goes by the pseudonym Tom Zebra, has been recording police officers at work in his city for years, uploading much of the content to his YouTube channel. Saulmon recently made the local news in his Los Angeles neighborhood for his new practice of using a drone to record video of traffic stops, DUI checkpoints or other police activity in his neighborhood. He explains in his videos that recording the police is a hobby and a form of social activism that promotes transparency. He has been arrested several times while recording police but has never been subsequently charged with any crime.
One video, called Federal Agents Threaten Photographer, at left, shows Saulmon flying his drone near an Air Force base in El Segundo, Calif., while federal agents stood by.
In the video, one agent warns Saulmon not to fly his drone over the base. Saulmon responded by asking which law he would be breaking if he did fly his drone over the base. The officer referred Saulmon to a nearby sign, which read, “It is unlawful to enter this area without permission of the Installation Commander.” The law referenced by the sign was called the Internal Security Act of 1950, and makes no mention of drones. The agent ensured Saulmon, however, that his drone would be taken away if he flew over the fence line.
“What’s your name? I want to see some identification,” Saulmon pressed one of the agents. “And I want to speak to your supervisor.”
Laws governing the use of drones by hobbyists are still immature. New regulations released by the Federal Aviation Administration on June 24 mark one of the first attempts to regulate recreational drone use. The new law prohibits the use of small (less than 55 pounds) unmanned aircraft near airports and crowds. Hobbyists wishing to fly within five miles of an airport are required to notify air traffic control for permission first.
The new law is in alignment with standards established by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, one of the largest drone hobbyist groups, which advises drone operators to avoid “unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures.”