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Police apologize for drone secrecy, but proposed law may ground it anyway

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Although San Jose Police Department admits it may have misstepped with its purchase of a drone last year, the department might not get a chance to use it thanks to a bill making its way through the California State Assembly.

Assembly Bill 1327, currently in committee, would require any public agency that intends to use a drone for any reason to provide "reasonable notice to the public" before its use. The bill would also prohibit police and other public agencies from using drones for surveillance purposes without first getting a search warrant.

The bill, sponsored by assemblymembers Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), is currently in committee and, if passed, may go to the state senate later this year.

AB-1327 would directly affect San Jose Police Department's drone, the first for a Bay Area city. The department said it purchased the device for its bomb unit using funds from a regional Department of Homeland Security grant. When it was approved by the city, no public comment was taken because it was bundled with a host of other DHS-related expenses.

Public knowledge of the department's drone came only after a 20-month investigation by online tech magazine Motherboard.

In a written statement, police department officials admitted Tuesday they should have done a better job communicating about the purchase and promised they would undertake "outreach and procedural steps" before the drone is used.

"The community should have had the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions and express their concerns," they wrote, adding that the department will "develop the policy and procedures that will provide and appropriate and practical framework to guide our operation."

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California says that even with promises of a written policy, the matter of the purchase still needs to be brought up for public debate. The organization took issue with the purchase as soon as Motherboard broke the story last week.

"With the history of police abuses in San Jose, the question should not be how to deploy a drone, but rather whether or not a drone should ever be used in San Jose," it wrote on its blog Tuesday.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil-liberties director for ACLU Northern California and author of the blog post, said, "When we have police departments like San Jose attempting to bypass debate and secretly purchase invasive technology like drones, it underscores the importance of having proper transparency and oversight," adding that AB-1327 would make a big difference in how secret a public-agency drone can stay and for how long.

"It's really important for these issues to be considered at the beginning," she said. "[AB]-1327 is on-the-back-end protection, but there needs to be this process and debate at the beginning, before funding is even sought or certainly before drones are acquired."

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