Alameda County Sheriff Pitches Drones to Supervisors

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department made a pitch on Thursday to a Board of Supervisors committee to approve the purchase of a four-pound aerial drone.

No immediate action was taken after the meeting on whether to approve the purchase of the drones, which will stem from a $31,000 state grant.

The drone, or small unmanned aerial system, would be used to give law enforcement a birds-eye view of crime scenes, search and rescue operations, and bomb scare situations. The drones are able to fly for up to 24 minutes and can soar as high as 400 feet in the air. Supporters of the drones say they could have been extremely useful in the recent manhunt for ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, a recent Emeryville bomb scare and to scan for the shooter during the Oikos University shooting.

"It can save lives of first responders and of citizens," said Sheriff's Capt. Tom Madigan.

But while the sheriff's department says the potential benefts of the drones are "irrefutable," the American Civil Liberties Union said the potential for abuse is just as great.

The ACLU worries that the public's privacy could be violated if the drones are allowed to be launched. These civil rights lawyers have said that drones should only be deployed when a warrant for a specific drone involved.

Members of the ACLU and a group called  Alameda County Against Drones filled the Board of Supervisors meeting room wearing "No Drone" stickers. Some want Alameda County to be declared a "drone-free zone."

Civil rights attorney Micheal Siegal said he worries the robotic computer controlled machines would be used to "surveil and supress our community." 

Drones are predominantly deployed for military applications, but also used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as policing, firefighting, and nonmilitary security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. They have been around since the 1930s but because of advances in technology have become extremely proficient in collecting all sorts of information - one such cause for the current national controversy.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern said the department's been working closely with the ACLU to draft guidelines to protect privacy rights. He believes the devices will be a crucial part of the future of policing and says the departmet is poised to lead the way.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department would become the first law enforcement agency in California to deploy the devices if approved.

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