After months of often-heated debate, a civilian oversight panel signed off on a year-long test of drones by the Los Angeles Police Department, which will become the nation’s largest police department to deploy the controversial technology, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Police Commission’s 3-1 vote prompted jeers, cursing and a protest that spilled into a downtown intersection just outside the LAPD’s headquarters, evidence of the opposition police have faced as they tried to reassure wary residents that the airborne devices would not be misused.
The use of drones — or “small Unmanned Aerial Systems,” — has become a contentious issue for law enforcement in Los Angeles, where the nation’s largest sheriff’s department has flown one since January. Advocates say camera-mounted drones could help protect officers by collecting crucial information during high-risk situations or searches without risking their safety. For many privacy advocates and police critics, drones stir Orwellian visions of unwarranted surveillance or fears of militarized, weapon-toting devices patrolling the skies. LAPD brass promised careful restrictions on when the drones would be used and strong oversight of the pilot program. Weapons and facial-recognition technology will also be prohibited. Some critics said they could not trust the department to follow its own rules, no matter how stringent. “Mission creep is of course the concern,” said Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles. “The history of this department is of starting off with supposedly good intentions about the new toys that it gets … only to then get too tempted by what they can do with those toys.”