One thing was abundantly clear at this afternoon's city council meeting on Seattle's police drones (insert joke about the city council droning on here). Nobody likes them very much.
The ACLU doesn't like them, the public really doesn't like them, council members are skeptical about them (some more openly than others), and even assistant police chief Paul McDonagh kept a measured tone when talking about the latest, flashiest tool in crime-fighting technology.
Which makes all the political sense in the world: since the city found out that the police department acquired two drones with a federal homeland-security grant in 2010 (without telling anybody), the public response has been overwhelmingly negative.
This afternoon, the city council's committee on public safety, civil rights, and technology (Bruce Harrell, Mike O'Brien, and Nick Licata) met to discuss a proposed bill regulating how the SPD can use its two drones. Also at the table: representatives from the ACLU, the SPD, and the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Towards the end of the meeting, council member O'Brien pointedly told assistant chief McDonagh he was "disappointed" that it was a "beg-forgiveness, not ask-permission conversation." In other words, not a meeting about whether Seattle police should have drones, but how they should be used.
During the public-comment period, speakers (11 in all, roughly a third of the attendees, not counting journalists) also complained about the fait accompli nature of the conversation. The afternoon's loudest applause went to O'Brien after he offhandedly mentioned the possibility of forcing the SPD give the drones back.
Still, we've got them. And committee chair Bruce Harrell sees an opportunity—to become the first city in the country to pass a law defining how and when police drones can be used.
At the meeting, council staff member Christa Valles said the federal government has issued hundreds of licenses for agencies to use drones, but there's almost no data, research, or community regulation of how and when they get deployed. (Though the city council of Charlottesville, Virginia voted this week to ban drones outright.)
If Seattle can pass a good, restrictive bill—courtesy of council member and current mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell—it could set a national precedent. And make a nice-looking feather in Harrell's cap.
But besides Harrell and assistant chief McDonagh, pretty much everyone else in the room (including Licata and O'Brien) seemed to fall somewhere between deeply skeptical and outright hostile to the idea that such a bill could be written and enforced, much less insure that police wouldn't succumb to the temptations of mission creep—today's tool to save an innocent baby held hostage by a mad gunman could be tomorrow's tool for unconstitutional surveillance.
And even if the city wraps a tight girdle around SPD's drones—what kind of data they can collect, when and how they can collect it, how long they can keep it before deleting it, when it is or is not admissible in court—what's to prevent the FBI or another federal agency from seizing that data and using it however they like? We've already seen what kind of batty undercover projects the FBI and the SPD have collaborated on.
Even the strictest city guidelines will inevitably become a Pandora's box and will inevitably be broken and abused.
And yet—the drones are here. And they're spreading. Even if Seattle throws its two in the trash, some politicians somewhere are going to have to make some rules.
The major points of the proposed bill, as described during today's meeting:
(1) It prohibits the SPD from buying more drones, or swapping or borrowing other drones, without the city's permission.
(2) Drones can only be used for data collection on a specific "target"—that can't just fly over crowds and collect general surveillance.
(3) Data gathered by the drones that isn't pertinent to some case must be deleted in 30 days.
(4) SPD must obtain a warrant to use its drones, except in "exigent" circumstances—search and rescue, hostage crises, etc.
(5) SPD's drones can use facial recognition and other biometric tools but only to identify their specific "target."
(6) Drones are not allowed to fly at night (already a federal regulation).
(7) Drones are not allowed to fly over heavily populated areas.
(8) There will be publicly available "compliance" audits and annual reports on drone usage.
Council members, along with their guests, debated some of these points. Council member Licata made the excellent points that (a) drones are being pushed on law-enforcement organizations by the growing drone industry and (b) that the devil is in the "exigent" exemptions on the SPD having to get a warrant. If those rules aren't iron-clad, there might as well not be any rules at all.
He pointed out that, at one time, the FBI identified Martin Luther King as the gravest danger to America. "If the FBI was in charge," he said, "they would be following him with drones."
Then the committee adjourned. It will meet again in a few weeks.
As assistant chief McDonagh stepped out of city hall onto the wet sidewalk, a portly man in a suit—who wasn't at the meeting but seemed to know him—said hello.
"It's not often that you see chief McDonagh and the ACLU under the same roof!" the man joked. Assistant chief McDonagh gave a small, perfunctory smile.