Civil Rights Groups Slam San Jose over Drone Purchase

Civil rights groups castigated San Jose city leaders for approving a drone purchase without public debate over privacy concerns. They're now asking the city to reform procedures for acquiring surveillance technology to make the process more transparent.

A letter submitted to the Rules and Open Government Committee, which meets today, was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Asian Law Alliance, Center for Media Justice and Coalition for Justice and Accountability.

“Community members did not have the proper opportunity to voice their concerns about the potential purchase of a drone, and City Council members were not able to vote on the budget request with these concerns in mind,” the letter states. “The City Council should show its commitment to respecting civil liberties and civil rights by bringing this issue back for a robust public debate and a new vote.”

The San Jose Police Department (SJPD) acquired a drone through a Homeland Security grant last year. The purchase was tucked away on a consent calendar and might have continued to avoid public scrutiny had an investigative news site not filed repeated public records requests asking if the city had an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in its possession.

Muckrock, working with Vice media, launched a project in 2012 to identify which public agencies own UAVs. Police initially lied to the Muckrock reporter, saying they had no such records, but after repeated requests over several months, they finally issued documentation that showed a drone purchase.

SJPD got its hands on a $7,000 drone for its bomb squad, it finally admitted. The purchase was buried on a Nov. 19, 2013, council agenda with a summary that contained no reference to a drone. Only in a separate memo from SJPD Chief Larry Esquivel is there a reference to the UAV. The small kit-assembled flying robot could also help in hazmat situations, the agency said. (Here’s a link to the site that sells the contraption, the NEO 660 V2, where it’s priced for much less).

Yet the letter from civil rights groups urges police to weigh the risks.

“Drones pose significant threats to privacy and free expression because they can operate surreptitiously, enable warrantless dragnet surveillance, and can be easily misused for discriminatory purposes,” the missive cautions.

Recently, Alameda, San Mateo and San Francisco counties each considered and rejected drone purchases after weighing the benefits of the technology against concerns from the public, the letter notes.

“It is especially troubling that the [San Jose] City Council allowed the police department to purchase a drone without public debate in light of San Jose's history of police misconduct and discriminatory treatment of communities of color,” the ACLU writes.

Police acknowledged they should have been more forthcoming about acquiring the drone and said the same about its acquisition of a mine-resistant armored truck.

More from the San Jose Rules and Open Government Committee agenda for Sept. 3, 2014:

  • San Jose has what is calls a Heritage Tree program, which protects trees of special significance to a neighborhood. A neighborhood association wants the city to nominate an old cedar on Hanchett Avenue and a coast live oak at Theodor Lenzen Park for consideration.
  • David Wall wonders if the city has “mastered the black arts of Voodoo to easily and routinely ‘snooker’ council? Or is council, naturally prone to authorizing really dumb ideas from [the Environmental Services Department] as long as the ideas are linked in some way to the Green Vision?"
  • A District 1 candidate forum takes place on Oct. 11 at Lynbrook High School. The event is sponsored by D1 Councilman Pete Constant, whose ends his term in December and won’t run for re-election.
  • Councilman Ash Kalra wants the city to pass a resolution opposing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established corporate personhood. “Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commission case, there has been a growing concern that corporations, special interest groups and lobbyists are leveraging power with the use of campaign donations and other methods of financial influence,” he writes. “All these actions have been labeled as free speech, protected under the first amendment. Under current law, corporations are be recognized at "people", vesting them with all Constitutional rights that are afforded to US citizens of natural, human birth and existence. Yet, corporations benefit from special advantages not afforded to human beings, such as limited liability, perpetual life, and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets.”

WHAT: Rules and Open Government Committee meets
WHEN: 2pm Wednesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. I hope Chief Esquivel remembers to get a nice stretch in before he rapidly bends over in response to the latest criticism of the department. I wouldn’t want him to pull a muscle.

  2. > “It is especially troubling that the [San Jose] City Council allowed the police department to purchase a drone without public debate in light of San Jose’s history of police misconduct and discriminatory treatment of communities of color,” the ACLU writes.

    “communities of color”?

    Does the ACLU give a crap if the SJPD uses drones to violate the privacy of white people?

    Of course they don’t.

    I like civil liberties, but I NEVER give a dime to the ACLU because they’re just a bunch of divisive, hypocritical, advocates of UN-constitutional, UN-equal protection under the law.

    Everything the ACLU does is ultimately a political stunt.

  3. I find it very interesting that the groups mentioned in this article have absolutely NO problem filming Police Officers doing their job, but take issue with the Police filming criminals in action. Have they forgotten that “equal rights,” extend to both sides?

    • Anyone can be filmed in public areas, including police officers. It’s very difference from surreptitious or mass surveillance that could be furthered by drones. Furthermore, the surveillance could be of the general public, not of suspected criminals (probable cause, warrants, etc.)

  4. Well, I guess if they succeed, the aforementioned “civil rights” groups can now be directly held liable for ANY future casualties and/or loss of life and property that could’ve been prevented and/or avoided through the use of UAVs.

    The ACLU is neither American, nor Civil, or does it stand for Liberties.
    I’ll give them the “Union” part as they’re really really good at organized/institutionalized intimidation and harassment.

    • The point being made is not that drones/UAVs shouldn’t be used, but rather that they should be discussed in the open and the general public should have the opportunity to consider pros and cons before their police department starts using them. It hasn’t been the case so far.

      • Sorry, my bad. Let’s just get rid of everything else that “poses significant threats to privacy and free expression” including patrol car dash cams, chopper cameras, chest cameras, and CCTV surveillance systems. After all it’s 2014 and everyone’s awesome.

  5. Jenn W;

    None of the following, “the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Asian Law Alliance, Center for Media Justice and Coalition for Justice and Accountability” bothered to show up at the “Rules and Open Government Committee” meeting today. Perhaps they were all cowering in fear that their public activities are now being recorded by the San Jose Police for the world to see just how worthless and self-serving these entities are when they are publically unmasked.

    It is my express hope and prayer that the San Jose Police will unleash their drone upon these worthless organizations of dubious trash and political filth. Then turn the drone loose on illegal alien activities for the express purpose of providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with pertinent intelligence to initiate the removal of this vermin and their contagions from our midst and from receiving the fruits of the “public’s prostituted dime” (welfare, housing, free education and other taxpayer subsidized gifts).

    I say, “Yes to SJPD and a double Yes to the Drone!”

    Many more Drones and corresponding logistical support are needed to provide for the good work that lies ahead.

    David S. Wall

    • Gotta agree with the double yes to the drone. It’s the same “drone” you can buy in a hobby store weighing in at under a pound, not some 1 ton jet powered air to surface missile toting war machine. Of course, SJI will make a mountain out of a molehill on this one.

    • “[V]ermin” and “contagion” when talking about human beings, your rhetoric is disgusting. I’m glad some citizens and some organizations oppose it unequivocally. Thankfully, so does the Constitution of the United States.

      • > Thankfully, so does the Constitution of the United States.

        If the U.S. Constitution can call employer mandated health care a “tax”, it can call a police surveillance drone a “tax”.

      • Mr. Wall as usual is the lone sane voice in city hall.
        Only problem with his suggestion is that our brilliant progressive leaders would never allow the drone to be used to make San Jose better- only worse. Kalra, Rocha et al would probably devise some program that empowers contagious, homeless vermin to use their taxpayer subsidized cell phone to schedule the drone to deliver them their EBT card even as they’re taking a dump in Coyote Creek.

  6. Here’s a suggestion, when you see it, shoot it down! There are enough guns in this city…

  7. A suggestion to those that oppose the drone: if you see it, shoot it down. There are enough guns in this city…

  8. Have you ever seen the video or still footage from a GoPro? You can’t identify people from 50′. You’d have to get so close that they could take it down with a baseball bat. How is that a privacy issue? If you don’t notice a hexacopter 5′ away from you….

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