Here's Looking at You, Kid

The SPD's Aerial Drones Are Coming—But Who Are They Coming For?

Here's Looking at You, Kid

LT. SACKMAN "A lot of other cities are behind us and waiting to see what happens,” he says.

The Draganflyer X6 is a tiny helicopter with big implications. A six-rotor drone quietly acquired by the Seattle Police Department in 2010 with grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, it weighs a little more than two pounds, can travel at a top speed of 30 miles per hour, and is designed to carry high-quality video equipment, including an infrared camera.

Last week, the SPD brought one of its two Draganflyers—which cost a total of $82,553 plus $2,700 in training costs and are currently authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration for training, but not for operational use—to a community forum, planning to answer questions. The meeting erupted into loud protest. "We don't trust you with the weapons you do have!" one attendee shouted. Another asked if drones were a foregone conclusion or "do we get to choose?" A third shouted: "What's the return policy for the drones?"

In a quiet corner of the room, Lieutenant Greg Sackman—the lead officer of SPD's drone project—said he didn't mind the ruckus. Seattle is at the forefront of a national debate, he explained, and the technology is developing faster than the laws to govern it. It wasn't until this year that the US Supreme Court ruled on whether law enforcement could use GPS to track suspects without a warrant. (The court said no.) "A lot of other cities are behind us and waiting to see what happens," Sackman said. "We have to earn people's trust." Still, he added, drones will spread to police departments across the country: "It's just a matter of time."

The SPD says it wants to use drones for noncontroversial missions: bomb threats, search and rescue, crime-scene photography. But skeptics, including city council members (who only found out about SPD's drones after a federal public-records lawsuit by a watchdog group) and the American Civil Liberties Union, are wary of mission creep. They say that drones, even if introduced for narrow and highly regulated use, could be too tempting to not deploy for surveillance, violating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. "Imagine year five of the Romney administration," says ACLU spokesperson Doug Honig, who argues that drones should be governed by strict ordinances at the local, state, and federal level, "and not internal policies that can be changed by future administrations."

These are reasonable and serious concerns. Other police departments are already talking about using drones for mass surveillance—and even arming them. A police chief in Utah asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to fly a "nocturnal surveillance airship" over Ogden. (The FAA declined the request due to air-traffic concerns.) Sheriff Gregory Ahern of Alameda County, California, has angered residents with comments about using drones for "proactive policing." Earlier this year, a chief deputy in Montgomery County, Texas, said he was open to the idea of arming a drone with "impact rounds, chemical munition rounds, or a Taser." (During a test flight of the county's prospective drone that same month, it crashed into a heavily armed police vehicle.)

While SPD's proposals have been more modest, its internal policies already leave room for broad discretionary power. The current operations manual for SPD drones lists very specific uses—hazmat, barricaded persons—but says "all other requested uses will be approved by the Special Operations Bureau Chief."

"This is actually a pretty restrictive list from our perspective," Lt. Sackman says. "Police officers are given a great amount of discretion in the performance of their duties, up to and including the use of deadly force, if required, without seeking permission." Still, he says, "As with any new technology, there is the potential for misuse. SPD is trying to clearly define when and where we can use the UAS [drones] to lessen this possibility as well as provide clear guidance to the operators on what they can and can't do."

In the meantime, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell—chair of the council's committee on public safety, civil rights, and technology—says he will add a proviso to this year's budget prohibiting the purchase of further drones with city money until SPD comes to the council with an acceptable usage policy. (SPD bought its drones with federal money.) The drone return policy, he says, is simply "buyer beware." Harrell hopes that SPD policy will require warrants, restrict use to daylight hours, stipulate how long the department can keep any information it has gathered, mandate a public log of usage, and keep drones away from crowds. Harrell also plans to convene his committee in December, once the city budget has passed, to introduce drone regulations.

"Mission creep is a 100 percent valid concern," he says. "I have gotten hardly zero support for this from all walks of life—from the guy hanging out on the corner to the woman in the power suit. I get stopped all the time and asked about these drones." recommended


Comments (15) RSS

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You can see a another unmanned drone in action here:…
Posted by Ken Mehlman on October 31, 2012 at 9:33 AM · Report this
I am as concerned about privacy as anyone, but I want SPD to do this, and patrol PUBLIC areas with high car-prowl rates or other crimes. Police already use helicopters, so what's the problem with less expensive and possibly more effective drones? Force multiplication, at a relatively low cost, it's a good idea.
Posted by native Seattle guy on October 31, 2012 at 9:54 AM · Report this
It's absolutely critical to formalize the restrictions on use in city ordinance rather than relying on the SPD operations policy. How long you think it'll be before somebody tries to strap a taser on it?

Honestly, I'm more worried about the privacy impact of UAVs in private hands. At least the Constitution gives us some protection against government intrusion. Between Google/Amazon/MS gathering data on my breakfast eating habits and the skeezy dude down the block trying to watch me take a shower, it's going to have to be blackout curtains on the windows and skylights pretty soon.

I wonder if the neighbors would all pitch in for one of those Israeli Iron Dome thingies...
Posted by Mr. Happy Sunshine on October 31, 2012 at 10:02 AM · Report this
TVDinner 4
No. The militarization of our police forces has to stop.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on October 31, 2012 at 10:10 AM · Report this
civilian police are not the military they are not at war with the populace and they need to stop thier weapons buildup. they use decommisioned military vehicles, they wear military type uniforms and webgear. i spent 10 and a half years in the military police and i see these nitwits playing army and it is very disconcerting. and now they want drones. they have proven themselves unworthy of the publics trust and need to stick to thier primary purpose public safety.
Posted by funkyphil on October 31, 2012 at 2:05 PM · Report this
i spent over 10 years in the military police. i see civilian cops running areound in military like uniforms and webgear carrying military weaponry and driving former military armored vehicles. who are they at war with? us? enough is enough. they have to spend all the money the federal government gives them each year or they will get cut the next. so this is what we get cops playing army, very dangerous for everyone.
Posted by funkyphil on October 31, 2012 at 2:29 PM · Report this
ooooops didnt realize both got posted sorry for being redundant
Posted by funkyphil on October 31, 2012 at 2:30 PM · Report this
This is totally unacceptable and cannot start. If you're interested in taking action against the SPD's use of drones join the facebook group "I SAY NO TO DRONES" a forum for organizing to stop this before it starts.
Posted by amber kruel on November 1, 2012 at 7:41 AM · Report this
The SPD Drone Project: and Legal Responsibility

Seattle City Council members “..only found out about the SPD’s drones after a federal public-records lawsuit by a watchdog group”?

Holy Mother of God!!!!

So, the SPD, with grant money from the DHS, acquired drones without notifying the Seattle City Council?

This brings to light some extremely important questions on legal responsibility, such as who has the fiduciary accountability if (or when) the SPD is sued for misuse and abuse of their drones?

Significant sums of money are disbursed year in and year out, as a portion of the city’s budget, in response to lawsuits against the SPD and out-of-court settlements.

This seldom reaches the public eye, only occasionally, as with the recent highly suspect shooting when the surviving family members were paid $1 million by the city.

Does the DHS now assume all legal/financial responsibility (and culpability) for future “mishaps” of the SPD’s drones?

Certainly neither the public, nor its representatives on the city council, had any say in the matter.

Also, does this set a future precedent for advanced weapons systems transfer from the federal level to the City of Seattle?

Will the SPD one day, ever so quietly, acquire a robotic force, or destructive laser systems?

While this may sound farfetched at this moment, many of us predicted drones (UAVs and UGVs) in police usage many years ago and, as usual, the hurled epithets of “conspiracy theorists” are again proven wrong!

The legal fiduciary responsibility must be immediately established --- this is the concrete responsibility of the mayor, the city prosecutor, and city council.

(Who could possibly have any confidence in the SPD chief after this latest escapade?

And if the legal/financial responsibility hasn't been resolved yet, and if people aren't working on it already --- somebody isn't doing their job --- and please don't wait for official direction from the Community Development Roundtable!)
Posted by sgt_doom on November 1, 2012 at 10:13 AM · Report this
I have nothing against drone technology. I think drones fill a tech niche and will be used for a variety of jobs from construction to package delivery.

My concern is abuse of power. The neoliberal coup d'état of our gov disenfranchises the general population. It's an imbalance that creates instability as people become more desperate to regain their lost voices in a broken system. This leads to push back from the the monied interest that have bought our political leaders, who use official authoritarian violence (the police) to gag the dispossessed. This turns all police capability into political speech used to increase or maintain imbalance and instability. And that is a real concern.
Posted by Mw365 on November 2, 2012 at 7:40 AM · Report this
SPD can then use the drones to kill some more Native Americans or those pesky blacks.They enjoy killing non whites.
Posted by mmadttog on November 4, 2012 at 7:23 AM · Report this
Texas10R 12
"[Seattle City Council member Bruce] Harrell hopes that SPD policy will require warrants, restrict use to daylight hours, stipulate how long the department can keep any information it has gathered, mandate a public log of usage, and keep drones away from crowds."

Such conditions defeat most of the tactical purpose of the UAS, so good luck with that. But still, don't HOPE for the kind of control you need over cops –DEMAND IT, be specific, and make it a law with the teeth required to punish anyone who violates it. Do it now, before the new UAS models come onto the market: cheaper, quieter, more capable.
Posted by Texas10R on November 4, 2012 at 7:52 PM · Report this
I'm with @4 and @5. This is straight out of George Orwell's Animal Farm!!
Posted by auntie grizelda on November 4, 2012 at 9:20 PM · Report this
How can the Stranger badmouth the police using drones, yet endorse Obama (who is using armed drones to rain down destruction on Pakistan) at the same time?
Posted by Sprinklycheese on November 6, 2012 at 3:47 PM · Report this
#14 Maybe because Obama's drones are targeting insane uneducated Islamic fools that are determined to kill Americans. The cops are only trying to apprehend car thieves and rapists.
Posted by longwayhome on December 4, 2013 at 8:20 PM · Report this

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