Exactly how does the San Jose Police Department intend to use an $8,000 bomb-sniffing drone?
That’s just one question that could be answered by Muckrock’s three-year project to peel back the curtain on local law enforcement agencies deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. Earlier this month, the independent investigative news site, which has partnered with Vice media’s Motherboard, published articles about its repeated requests to gather information from the San Jose Police Department.
In October 2013, SJPD initially told Shawn Musgrave, a Muckrock reporter based in New York, that no documents existed in response to his requests for information. That proved to be false, as City Council agenda notes and documentation for federal grant awards noted that SJPD had indeed received more than $400,000 in grants from the Department of Homeland Security, including $8,000 specifically designated for a bomb squad drone.
San Jose Inside reached out to Musgrave to find out more about the project, as well as get his thoughts on how SJPD has facilitated his information requests, which were filed under the California Public Records Act.
Muckrock’s project began in August 2012 with the goal of finding out how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permitted the use of drones, Musgrave said. The FAA has to approve the use of drones by local agencies and was “being incredibly difficult in releasing information.” Sidestepping the obfuscation for a tedious but thorough vetting, Muckrock has now sent out requests for information to more than 300 government agencies across the country, according to Musgrave.
“Reasonable people can disagree over whether there is a privacy issue inherent in drones,” he said, “but most people would agree that the public deserves to have a heads up.”
San Jose’s drone was specifically approved by the Dept. of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) to deal with situations involving hazmat (hazardous materials). The Bay Area’s UASI group has received more than $27 million total in federal grants, Muckrock reported. But the use of drones, in particular, has raised questions about privacy. Musgrave told San Jose Inside that $8,000 would allow SJPD to purchase “a pretty substantial unit.”
He filed his first request with SJPD—and it’s one of the more thorough PRA requests we’ve seen in a while—in October 2013.
“Assuming they have drones, it makes it pretty difficult for the agencies to come up with a ‘sorry we don’t have anything’ response,” Musgrave said about his initial PRA filing.
Perhaps due to miscommunication or a lack of interest, it took SJPD all of one day to respond that it had no drones and no records responsive to his request. But that was not true, as council notes in November 2013 and other federal grant documents would show.
On July 15, Musgrave followed up with a second request that laid out his case that SJPD did have responsive documents and purchased a drone. SJPD’s records manager Tamara Becker responded:
"Following your initial request in October 2013 regarding any San Jose procurement of a UAV, R&D checked with the appropriate staff in the police department regarding any relevant vendor payments or documentation for such a purchase.
“Since UASI grant funding had not yet been approved, either by UASI or by the City Council, no purchase had been made, and therefore they found no purchasing documents that would have been responsive at the time of your request.”
“Either way, they obviously had documentation,” Musgrave told San Jose Inside. “They’ve been preparing this for several months, if not a year.”
Under the state’s Public Records Act, a local agency must respond to requests for information within 10 days of receipt. That would be today. We’ll keep following this story as the information arrives.