Later this afternoon, Mayor Mike McGinn will announce that he is grounding the Seattle Police Department's controversial drone program and returning the two remotely controlled planes to the vendor, according to sources at City Hall who asked not to be named. "The mayor and chief had a conversation and agreed it was time to end the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program," one of the sources tells us. "It had become a distraction to the two things the department is working hard on, general public safety and community-building work."
The news comes on the heels of—and largely in response to—an angry hearing yesterday held by Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who was considering legislation to restrict the use of the drones for police investigations. The program has created a slowly burning outcry since 2010, when the city purchased the units for intelligence gathering with the help of a federal Homeland Security grant.
Seattle's decision may influence other cities, because, as Lieutenant Greg Sackman told The Stranger last October when he was promoting the program, other cities are behind us and waiting to see what happens."
The Seattle Police Department had never made a particularly compelling case that the drones were a useful investigation tool, but critics, including the ACLU of Washington, have fought the program, saying the units could be used to gather personal information in dubious circumstances and violate civil liberties. Moreover, the drone program served as a pox on a police department that is attempting to regain public trust after a federal lawsuit accused the city of using excessive force.
Hundreds of law-enforcement agencies in the United States are authorized to use drones, but none have passed legislation restricting their use. On Monday, Charlottesville, Virginia, became the first city to pass an anti-drone resolution.
Politically speaking, ending the program seems a wise move by McGinn, who is entering a reelection year facing, among many other high-profile challengers, Council Member Harrell. Scotching the program now may take the issue out of Harrell's campaign arsenal; on the other hand, it bodes well for Harrell, too, who can rightly say that he forced the mayor's hand by bringing the issue to a head. Harrell could also push legislation to ban drones from the city outright, regardless of who is elected (or re-elected) mayor.
UPDATE at 3:50 PM: Mayor McGinn confirms in a statement: "Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority. The vehicles will be returned to the vendor.”
UPDATE at 5:00 PM: "We applaud the mayor's action," says ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig, reached by phone. "I think this is a classic example of the government getting out ahead of people doing something because of federal funding without having public involvement and now recognizing that it has to pull back."
But Honig warns that another fight remains. "We would like the city to reexamine the extensive camera system that is being set up along Alki and extended to I-5, another example of a surveillance program driven by federal funding and accepted by city leaders without discussion or input. That is the next thing the city needs to reexamine."