Will Distrust of Police Ground LAPD Drones?

Ground Police DronesThe Stop LAPD Spying Coalition announced their new campaign last week to ban police from using the same unmanned aerial drones that were previously barred from use in the skies above Seattle.

Joined by the ACLU of Southern California, the National Lawyers Guild and theBill of Rights Defense Committee, the Coalition’s plans are in response to the Los Angeles Police Department’s acquisition earlier this year of two Draganflyer X6 drones. The department received them as gifts from the Seattle Police Dept. after the Seattle public rejected them out of privacy concerns.

Preempting a backlash, the LAPD announced their ownership of the drones in May. Police spokesperson Cmdr. Andrew Smith, said the drones’ use would be “narrow and prescribed,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We wanted to be really up-front with the public that we’re looking at using these down the road,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were trying to sneak these things into action.”

That, however, didn’t stop civil liberties advocates in LA from bristling. In an interview with Coalition organizers Jamie Garcia and Hamid Khan, both explained it was their coalition’s distrust of the LAPD that is the impetus of their campaign.

As proof of point, Garcia pointed to how LAPD officers just this April were found to have tampered with audio equipment on their patrol cars meant to monitor officers. The recording equipment was part of a federal consent decree that was lifted last year. The decree, which lasted for over a decade, was in response to the department’s infamous Rampart scandal in the late ‘90s. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck chose not to investigate, but instead issued warnings and instituted checks to avoid further tampering of equipment.

“We have to look at drones in the context of the institution,” said Garcia. “Can it be trusted right now with even more technology that has the potential to violate human, civil and privacy rights? Do we want to even allow them any kind of space or liberty to have that when we know already who they are?”

More than any one single issue that breeds distrust for Coalition members is law enforcement’s habit of mission creep. 

More than any one single issue that breeds distrust for Coalition members is law enforcement’s habit of mission creep. Khan gave the LAPD’s Suspicious Activity Reports as an example of this.

Originally conceived by the department, and then adopted nationwide, SARs were meant to thwart terrorist attacks by giving police officers a way to secretly report on a citizen’s behavior they believe to be related to terrorism, which often involves non-criminal acts. The reports, and often the person’s information, are then sent to counter-terrorism centers across the U.S. Over time, however, these centers began to drift from their original mandate and now counter-terrorism centers are involved in ordinary crime-fighting or monitoring political dissidents.

SWAT teams are another example of mission creep, said Khan. SWAT was first conceived and implemented by the LAPD in the 1960s. The semi-military units were originally meant to address serious and violent situations, such as riots, hostage situations or mass shootings. Over the years, however, SWAT teams expanded their mission and are now used to issue mundane warrants — in the process, too often harming the innocent, according to an ACLU report published last month.

It is for reasons such as these that Coalition members don’t put too much stock into the LAPD’s statement that they would only use their drones in rare circumstances.

“You go down a path and then the mission starts expanding,” said Khan. “In the long run, … what would policing look like 20 years from now?”

Local law enforcement around the country has gotten increasingly militarized over the years. The war on drugs has much to do with that. But after 9-11, a large amount of surplus military hardware was dumped on police departments. Long gone are the days of Barney Fife and his six-shooter loaded with only one bullet. Cops now have M-16s, grenade launchers, silencers, night-vision equipment and 30-ton armored vehicles. Soon many departments will have drones too.

Added to this arsenal are surveillance equipment. The LAPD uses cameras all over LA that employ facial recognition software, as well a device that can pull data off cell phones by mimicking a cell phone tower. It’s not just the NSA. Local law enforcement is now in the habit of spying on millions of innocent people too.

dan-bluemel“The use of militarized surveillance technology appears to be spreading beyond its initial applications during the mid-2000s in high-crime areas to now target narrow, specific crimes such as auto theft,” reported the LA Weekly in February. “Now, LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff are monitoring the whereabouts of residents whether they have committed a crime or not. The biggest surveillance net is license plate reading technology that records your car’s plate number as you pass police cruisers equipped with a rooftop camera, or as you drive past street locations where such cameras are mounted.”

According to Khan, this is more than enough evidence to divine the trajectory of law enforcement over the next 20 years.

“What policing is going to look like is … a counter-insurgency force that looks at people as insurgents,” he said.

The Coalition has about six months to build their campaign in time for when the LAPD announces its policies and intentions for their drones. In a meeting held on July 15, Coalition members quickly went to work, dividing into teams to handle media messaging, community outreach and research to name a few.

One decision that was made early on was not to compromise. They would not participate in drafting policy or protocols for police, nor would they negotiate. The message was clear: no drones in LA.

The Coalition has had some success in pushing back against the LAPD’s encroaching surveillance tactics. They were able to get the city’s Human Relations Commission to agree to have public hearings on the LAPD SARs program, which will be the first of its kind to shed light on local surveillance. The Coalition has also been building support within several of LA’s Neighborhood Councils.

Garcia is very confident that the Coalition will be able to stop the LAPD from having drones. After all, she said, Seattle was successful in stopping their police department.

dan bluemel“And I think too,” she said, “we are talking about things flying around in the sky with cameras. I think this is where technology is finally hitting the streets and people are finally realizing how technology is starting to invade their personal lives.”

If people are starting to resist technology that could potentially be turned against them, as Garcia says, then the Coalition needn’t look far for support. After the LA Kings won the Stanley Cup last month, a drone, incorrectly thought at the time to have belonged to the LAPD, was knocked out of the sky by fansthrowing shoes and clothes at it. Upon the drone crashing, they cheered: “We got the drone! We got the drone!”

Dan Bluemel
L.A. Activist

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