General Crime

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Drone Program to be Re-Worked

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The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office brought a proposal to the county Board of Supervisors Public Protection Committee today to purchase a small unmanned aircraft system, but amid privacy concerns from civil rights groups the committee made no decision on whether the program would move forward. The unmanned aircraft, commonly called a drone, would have a number of proposed missions to improve public safety in Alameda County, sheriff’s Capt. Tom Madigan said. Some of the missions include crime scene preservation and documentation, support in explosive ordinance disposal, hazardous materials spills, search and rescue missions and public safety and life preservation, Madigan said.

In addition, fire authorities would be able to request response to use the drones to find hot spots, Madigan said. Sheriff Gregory Ahern insists that the device is not a drone, which gives the impression of a weapon-baring military drone, but a system to assist in an on-mission circumstance only. “There is no intention to add weapons to the system,” Ahern said. The system has been in the works for more than two and a half years, Ahern said today at the hearing. The sheriff’s office has been in direct communication with the program’s opposition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, to hash out any concerns, he said. ACLU spokesman Will Matthews expressed privacy as the organization’s top concern. “Before a drone is deployed, we need to put into place strict privacy safeguards to ensure drones won’t be used for warrantless mass surveillance,” Matthews said.

Madigan said the drone, which weighs 4.4 pounds, will not invade anyone’s privacy and would only be deployed by approval from a command-level officer with the rank of captain or higher. It can only stay airborne for 12 to 25 minutes, “so it won’t be patrolling Alameda County,” he said. Matthews said that the ACLU believes the sheriff’s office is committed to take consideration of the privacy concerns, but the benefits of the drone still need to be assessed. There are loopholes in the guidelines proposed by the sheriff’s office that will allow alterations to the program without further Board of Supervisors approval, Matthews said.

Matthews said that with improving technology, the program could go from one that will include a lightweight drone that is in the air for a short period of time to a heavy-duty device that can stay airborne for several hours. Supervisor Richard Valle, part of the committee, showed concern with the program, siding with many of the protesters who voiced their opinions in the public comment part of the hearing. “Civil rights takes precedence,” Valle said of the program. Valle added that he hopes the sheriff’s office continues to work on the draft to have the “best policy in the nation.”

If the committee sends the proposal to the full Board of Supervisors, and it is approved, Ahern said the program would go in effect after about a year of training. Ahern said the system would cost between $31,000 and $50,000, depending on certain enhancements, which would be paid for through a grant and the sheriff’s office general budget. The intention of the sheriff’s office is only to purchase one or two systems at the most, Ahern said.

If the board approves the program and grant funds are awarded, the Federal Aviation Administration will need to give a certification of authorization, Madigan said. Should the FAA certify the sheriff’s office competency in executing the system’s missions, Ahern said the intention is to have a one-year pilot program and report back on its effectiveness. Supervisor Scott Haggerty, also part of the committee, seemed interested, but not ready to send it to the full board. Haggerty said he wants the system “if it could assist in saving lives,” but added, “there’s a lot of debate to still go on.”

The committee made no decision today and there is no scheduled follow-up hearing. “We’re going to continue to work with the ACLU, get all the input from today, and craft something we can all live with,” Madigan said. Madigan said it could take some time to have a new policy in place to bring back to the committee. Concerned members of the public, including the coalition group Alameda County Against Drones and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, were in attendance at the hearing to voice dissatisfaction with the potential program.

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