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Bay Area's first cop drone sparks worry, outrage from civil-rights group

Documents revealed Tuesday show the San Jose Police Department took posession of the Century NEO 660 in January.
Documents revealed Tuesday show the San Jose Police Department took posession of the Century NEO 660 in January.
Century Helicopter Products

San Jose Police Department documents made public this week confirm the agency has purchased a drone, making it the first Bay Area city with such a device for law-enforcement purposes. Officials cite officers' lives could be saved, but civil-rights advocates worry the department isn't being up front about its plans and it needs public debate.

According to a 20-month investigation reported Tuesday by online tech magazine Motherboard and Muckrock, SJPD officers took possession of the drone, a Century NEO 660 V2 hexacopter, and a GoPro camera in January, but according to the department, it has not yet been flown.

In addition to the GoPro camera, the 1.5-pound, 25-inch Century Neo 660 V2 comes equipped a DJI Naza-M flight controller and an autopilot system, according to the manufacturer's website. It can carry payloads up to 5.5 pounds.

According to the report, SJPD purchased the drone for $6,700 using funds from a regional Department of Homeland Security grant. Speaking to reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle, police spokesperson Albert Morales said that it will be used to aid police department's bomb squad in assessing threats. The department currently uses robots for bomb assessment, but police officials say drones are 95 percent less expensive than robots, making them a preferable choice.

"Our standard answer is that it's a tool—it's a tool that we're going to use," Morales told the Chronicle. "If it saves the life of a bomb technician that's out there doing a bomb assessment and he can utilize it to get to a position that he usually won't be able to, then it's worth it."

Because San Jose's drone was purchased using regional federal-grant funds, it must be shared with 13 other Bay Area law-enforcement agencies, including Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda and Oakland.

But many are concerned that the department is not being entirely up front about its plans for the drone.

Though the drone was reported on Tuesday, Motherboard and Muckrock began inquiring about it nearly two years ago, and until only recently the department denied any plans existed.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, reporters began requesting documents relating to a drone purchase in December 2012 and again last October. According Motherboard, all requests were denied with an explanation that no such documents existed.

However, a third request on July 15—accompanied by copies of documents uncovered by the ACLU of Northern California indicating a drone had been purchased—successfully obtained a host of documents relating to drones dating back to November. One such document identified $8,000 in funds from the Urban Area Security Initiative being reimbursed to the SJPD for an "unmanned aerial vehicle for hazardous material investigations."

In addition, in a letter accompanying the newly unearthed documents, police chief Larry Esquivel wrote that the SJPD has yet to develop guidelines for the drone's implementation or a training program for officers.

Despite its designation to only be used for bomb-assessment, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California issued a statement Tuesday stating its objections to the department buying a drone before a policy for its use is written. Without a policy, it says, the device could just as easily be turned into a surveillance drone, noting a similar situation in Alameda County in 2012 when the sheriff's office attempted to purchase a drone for search-and-rescue but documents showed the department also intended to use it for intelligence gathering and surveillance.

"Today, SJPD may say the drone will be used to inspect suspected bombs, but tomorrow it may want to use it to survey a 'high-crime' neighborhood," it wrote."That’s why having a policy matters."

The organization also notes that SJPD evasiveness about the drone lends one to believe the department is not being forthright about its intent.

"The San Jose Police Department never should never have even sought funding for a drone without a robust public debate and city council approval," it wrote.

Before the drone can fly, the city must get clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to use it. Law-enforcement, emergency-services or government agencies may only use drones after they receive a Certificate of Authorization from FAA—a process that can take many months to complete.

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