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Should the LAPD test drones? Police Commission is set for final vote on controversial proposal

In the two months since the Los Angeles Police Department revealed that it wants to try flying drones, the unmanned aircraft have been the source of an often heated back-and-forth.

Advocates say the drones could help protect officers and others by using nonhuman eyes to collect crucial information during high-risk situations. Skeptics worry that use of the devices will steadily expand and include inappropriate — or illegal — surveillance. The LAPD’s harshest critics want the drone program scrapped before it even takes off.

On Tuesday, the civilian board that oversees the LAPD will vote on whether to allow the department to test drones during a one-year pilot program.

Drones have been hailed by law enforcement across the country as a valuable technology that could help find missing hikers or monitor armed suspects without jeopardizing the safety of officers. But efforts to deploy the unmanned aircraft have frequently drawn fierce criticism from privacy advocates and police critics, for whom the devices stir Orwellian visions of unwarranted surveillance or fears of weaponized drones patrolling the skies.

LAPD brass have promised careful restrictions on their drones — or a “small Unmanned Aerial System,” in police speak. The department proposed a set of rules that, if approved by the Police Commission on Tuesday, would limit their use to a handful of tactical situations, searches or natural disasters. Each drone flight would be approved by a high-ranking officer on a case-by-case basis. Another rule is listed in bold: LAPD drones won’t be outfitted with any weapons, lethal or nonlethal.

But many residents have said they’re still wary.

Dozens of people spoke out against LAPD drones during four community meetings held in late August. When the LAPD solicited written feedback, only 97 of the 1,675 emails it received had encouraged the department to move forward with the program, according to an assistant chief.

Some groups have amplified their opposition in the days leading up to the Police Commission’s vote. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition — which protested the LAPD’s first look at drones in 2014 and the Sheriff’s Department’s use of them now — sent commissioners a letter Monday demanding that they vote down the drones.

“The people of Los Angeles have spoken,” the letter read. “Now the responsibility to uphold the peoples’ trust lies with you, the civilian Board of Police Commissioners.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said it too opposes the use of drones by the LAPD, writing in its own letter to the commission that the proposed program “poses serious risks to the privacy and civil rights of Los Angeles residents.”

Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney at the ACLU, said concern over “mission creep” — the idea that police will steadily, quietly expand use of the devices — is one of the most significant concerns. Although the LAPD’s proposed policy outlines circumstances when drones could be flown, she said, “there’s nothing that stops this list from being expanded.”

“Beyond just what’s in the policy today, it’s also a question of what’s in the policy tomorrow,” she said.

LAPD brass have acknowledged the controversy surrounding the devices and have tried to ease residents’ fears at public forums and in a podcast released by the department last week. In that podcast, Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala said the LAPD tried to tailor the proposed rules to address specific concerns — “to help alleviate some of the anxiety.”

“But that’s why this is a pilot program,” she continued. “Because we want people to take a look at how we are using this technology and be able to weigh in.”

The debate over whether the LAPD should use drones began in 2014, when the department received two Draganflyer X6 drones from police in Seattle — drones the Washington agency unloaded after heavy criticism from the public.

The outcry continued in L.A., and the drones were grounded before they were ever flown. The devices were ultimately locked away and destroyed this year — just before the LAPD went public with its current proposal.

This time, department officials have tried to assuage some of the concern by promising public oversight throughout the pilot program. If approved, any request to fly a drone — whether its use is approved or not — would be documented and reviewed by high-ranking officers and two police commissioners. The full five-person Police Commission would also receive quarterly reports that would be made public.

At the end of the yearlong pilot program, the panel would review use of the drones and determine whether to continue the program.

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