In the face of mounting criticism about its acquisition of a drone, the San Jose Police Department admitted that the process was not conducted in a transparent fashion and the drone will not be deployed before addressing community concerns.
"In hindsight, SJPD should have done a better job of communicating the purpose and acquisition of the UAS device to our community," the department said in a statement Tuesday. "The community should have the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns before we move forward with this project. To this end, we will first develop a community outreach plan before we take steps to deploy the UAS."
SJPD acquired the drone for its bomb squad and the purchase might have avoided public scrutiny if not for Muckrock's nationwide reporting on local law enforcement agencies purchasing a drone, or Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). San Jose's drone cost $7,000 and was funded through a Homeland Security grant. There was no substantial discussion of the acquisition by San Jose's City Council, which fast-tracked the purchase of a drone through its consent calendar.
Thomas Mann Miller, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California,was one of many privacy advocates who challenged to what ends the drone, which can be loaned out to other Bay Area law enforcement agencies, may be deployed.
“Drones can be used for a whole range of things, from the benign, like conservation efforts, to the highly objectionable, like dragnet surveillance and targeted killings,” Miller wrote. “Today, SJPD may say the drone will be used to inspect suspected bombs, but tomorrow it may want to use it to survey a ‘high-crime’ neighborhood. That’s why having a policy matters.”
Below is the full statement released Tuesday by the San Jose Police Department:
"In January, 2014, the San Jose Police Department purchased an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) that was funded as part of a federal Homeland Security grant accepted by the San Jose City Council in November 2013. The UAS is a Century Neo 660 radio-controlled hex-rotor (six-rotor) hobbyist-style helicopter that is equipped with a camera.
"SJPD intends to use the UAS primarily to access potential explosive devices and avoid exposing police bomb squad personnel to possible hazards. The UAS can be flown over a device to obtain images that would assist the bomb technicians. Another possible use would be for situations that threaten public safety. These could include dangers such as active shooters, hostage taking, or other such tactical situations where lives might be in immediate danger.
"SJPD strives to explore new technology that can help our department protect the community more effectively and efficiently. The UAS is an example of this, but it also is one of many projects the SJPD is working on. Other pressing issues facing SJPD, such as patrol staffing, employee retention and recruitment, Community Service Officer program, and Body Worn Camera project, have higher priorities at this time.
"In hindsight, SJPD should have done a better job of communicating the purpose and acquisition of the UAS device to our community. The community should have the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns before we move forward with this project. To this end, we will first develop a community outreach plan before we take steps to deploy the UAS.
"Following the completion of the community outreach efforts, the Department will then develop the policy and procedures that will provide an appropriate and practical framework to guide our operation of the UAS. At the same time, we will continue to research legal implications and Federal Aviation Administration requirements for the operation a UAS by SJPD. [sic]
"We are confident that this technology can improve certain police operational efficiencies and help enhance public and officer safety in specific critical incidents. However, SJPD will not use the UAS until these outreach and procedural steps have been completed and approved."