San Jose

ACLU: SJPD's New Drone Needs To “Fly Back to City Council”

The San Jose Police Department’s acquisition of a drone – making it the first Bay Area law enforcement agency to get one – may have flown under the radar, but now civil rights activists say it needs to fly back to City Council.

The Century NEO 660 V2 hexacopter was purchased by SJPD in January for just under $7,000 as part of a $400,000 Department of Homeland Security grant, but has been sitting in the department’s bomb squad unused, SJPD spokesperson Officer Albert Morales said.

The department has been laying low about the purchase, even denying it at first, Vice reported.

So far, there’s no timeline as to when the drone may actually be deployed, Morales said, adding that the bomb squad has its plate full.

“This is not something of an urgency,” he said.

But in a blog post Wednesday, the ACLU of Northern California criticized SJPD’s “secret drone purchase,” demanding that it be debated publicly before City Council so that community members have a chance to weigh in.

“When cities do not have the proper mechanisms in place to ensure transparency, accountability, and oversight when police departments are seeking to use outside funds for surveillance technology, the result is law enforcement agencies with effectively autonomous decision making,” wrote ACLU’S Thomas Mann Miller. “And that’s a scenario ripe for problems.”

Nicole Ozer, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said SJPD shouldn't even have purchased the drone without community outreach.

Morales said that public outreach is definitely in the cards.

“There are some roadblocks from actually utilizing the device – we would have to have policies and procedures in place, train operators, get FAA certification and of course, our chief wants to make sure that there’s some outreach,” he said. “Right now we are just conducting research.”

An FAA spokesperson said all government agencies have to get a certificate of authorization (COA) to fly their unmanned aircraft. As of last November, about 80 law enforcement agencies operate unmanned aircraft, the FAA said, adding that the operating agency is responsible for making sure that the drone is in a safe condition to fly.

Of the COA applications received by the FAA, typically, 5 to 7 percent are from law enforcement agencies.

Since the SJPD drone was purchased through a federal grant, the department will share the drone with 13 other Bay Area bomb squads. San Jose bomb squad officers responded to 86 bomb incidents from fiscal year 2013 to 2014.

“Our bomb squad sergeant felt it was necessary to ask and apply for a drone,” Morales said. “It’s great to have a device that gives you a bird’s eye view of an explosive device or hazardous material so that we don’t put our officers or the public in harms way.”

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