The SPD showing off one of its new drones back in 2012, approximately five seconds before the whole affair blew up in the departments face.
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  • The SPD showing off one of its new drones back in 2012, approximately five seconds before the whole affair blew up in the department's face.

You'd think that the state's first shot at trying to define and restrict the government use of drones would be an emotional, high-profile brawl—cops against the ACLU, community groups against law-and-order conservatives, and fiery speeches galore.

But, against expectations, the progress of House bill 2789 through the guts of Olympia had been relatively bipartisan and amiable. It passed the House 77-21 and the Senate with a surprising 46-1 vote. (According to Sen. Adam Kline of Seattle, the lone dissenting vote was a Republican from the Yakima/Sunnyside area, a former police officer who thought it was too hard on law enforcement.)

The bill also attracted an unusual consortium of supporters who've written letters urging Governor Jay Inslee to sign it into law, from the ACLU (which played a significant role in writing the bill) to groups representing communities of color (which expressed concern that state surveillance disproportionately effects their constituencies) to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (which gave as their begrudging blessing, "the restrictions in this legislation, while not ideal, should allow law enforcement agencies to utilize this technology without undue burden").

But now, at the 11th hour, rumors are circulating that Gov. Inslee's office may veto all or part of the bill, which has sent its supporters scrambling.

Sandy Mullins, a senior policy advisor for the governor, said Inslee is likely to take some action on the bill tomorrow morning. "We're still working through options and obviously it’s a hard one," she said. "As a concept, it makes a lot of sense to get out in front of the issue... But I think the bigger issue is how [drones] can be used in a positive way to do the work of government more efficiently."

That is one of the nuts of the argument—not only how drones should be restricted, but what exemptions should apply to agencies such as the Department of Ecology (to monitor environmental health) or to law-enforcement agencies (such as Seattle's police department, which faced an uproar after it was discovered that drones had been quietly bought with federal money and virtually no public conversation).

Sen. Kline says initial murmurings against the bill came from law enforcement, but that he and others worked with them to write it in such a way that their concerns and the ACLU's concerns could both be addressed. Now grumblings about the bill's drone restrictions are coming from state regulatory agencies (such as the Department of Ecology) and daily newspapers. Newspaper lobbyist Roland Thompson, of Allied Daily Newspapers, argues that the bill's broad definition of what counts as "personal information" obtained by a drone and how quickly it must be destroyed (within 10 to 30 days) make it useless for public-disclosure requests.

"For a dash cam or a lapel cam or a fixed camera on a building, you can have access to that information," he said. But the drone information has to be destroyed so quickly, a journalist might not even know to ask for it before it's gone. That, he argued, could hamper media attempts to document police accountability.

Shankar Narayan, a legislative lobbyist for the ACLU, totally rejects this interpretation of the bill. "Any information showing potential criminal activity—including police misconduct—isn't deleted," he said, "so that information can be used for police accountability purposes. Dash cams have a legal regime that has been a mess of litigation for over a decade, and continues to be litigated. They're a great example of what not to do."

To read Thompson's argument more cynically: If the world is going to get a powerful new tool to dig up and circulate information, newspapers want a piece of that action.

The newspaper lobbyist argues that the conversation should not be about restricting technology such as drones, but about law and our understanding of the plain-view doctrine (which allows officers to seize evidence or contraband without a warrant, if it is in plain view during a lawful observation). I disagree with Thompson about this—since drone technology is making it exponentially easier for an officer's eyes to zip around great distances at very fast rates, instead of being tethered to his or her body or something expensive and cumbersome like a helicopter, the technology debate is the legal debate.

Thompson attributes the bipartisan support to legislators not knowing what they were voting on.

Curiously, over the past several days, newspapers around the state fired off a series of editorials criticizing the bipartisan bill—from the Seattle Times to the Everett Herald to the Spokesman-Review—in language suspiciously similar to each other's and to their lobbyist's. (One even brazenly cited an anonymous source who sounded a lot like the newspaper advocate in Olympia: A "longtime lobbyist who has read many poorly written bills said the drone legislation package ranks with the worst of them.")

It looked like a coordinated attack masquerading as a sudden surge of independent editorial opposition. And they hammered away at the same strange points. "No state agency or local law enforcement is using the technology, but the legislation lays out all manner of definitions, restrictions and exemptions," the Seattle Times complained. (Um, don't we want to get out in front of the problem rather than wait for abuses to begin?) "If drones are essentially verboten in the state where Boeing wants to build them, what kind of message does that send?" the Union-Bulletin fretted. (It's always refreshing to see our state's papers standing up for the big guy.)

The bill admits drones are going to be with us and will be a tool government agencies will use—but what seemed like a bipartisan jump on how to regulate them has suddenly gotten a little turbulent.

Mullins said Gov. Inslee's office is "trying to understand, 'what are we trying to stop?'"

That much, at least, seems clear—we're trying to stop government agencies from buying surveillance technology under cover of night, with no public discussion about whether they're needed, how they'll be used, and whether their use will be transparent or opaque. There's already ample evidence that if we let them have the toys, they're going to play with them.

The ACLU hopes Inslee doesn't punt this bill until next year.

"We are in an urgent situation," Narayan said. "If we don’t sign this bill now, we will have no procurement regulations for the next year and agencies will rush to acquire drones soon because there are no rules."

We'll see what Gov. Inslee does tomorrow.