Alameda County Sheriff Lays Out Guidelines For Possible Use Of Domestic Drones

ALAMEDA COUNTY | The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department says strict guidelines will be used to ensure the use of drones for law enforcement purposes will not be used to violate the privacy of county residents. The sheriff’s department laid out its vision for the potential use of what it calls, small Unmanned Aircraft systems, in a five-page general order released Monday.

The two-member Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection Committee will discuss the department’s plan to purchase the roughly four-pound drone this Thursday, 1 p.m. in board chambers.

Last year, the sheriff’s department received $1.2 million in funding from the Department of Homeland Security for a host of law enforcement goodies. However, just over $31,000 was allotted for the purchase of a single drone. The American Civil Liberties Union then revealed public documents last December showing the sheriff’s department was further along in procuring bids for the drone—each of which greatly exceeded the budgeted amount. The ACLU has found documentation in the sherrif’s department’s grant application to the California Emergency Management Association describing the drone’s purpose for surveillance and intelligence.

During a Board of Supervisor’s meeting in early December, the undersheriff for the county reiterated the department’s intends to only use the drones for emergency search and rescue events, before telling the board, the department would not purchase the drone without the public vetting the plan.

In the general order, the sheriff’s department lays out the chain of command for how an order to deploy the drone will be handled and a list of authorized “missions.” They include: responses to hazardous materials spills, search and rescue, disposal of explosive ordnances, and post-incident scene preservation and documentation.

Also, included, is a vaguely worded sub-point referring to “public safety and life preservation missions to include barricaded suspects, hostage situations, active shooters, apprehension of armed and dangerous and/or violent fleeing suspects and high-risk search warrants.”

Critics of the use of drones for domestic purposes have focused on potential privacy concerns inherent in the use of the unmanned aircrafts. The sheriff’s department says the use of images taken in instances when an alleged felony is committed, the drone “does not infringe upon the reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The department says all recorded data will be reviewed for evidentiary values. If the images do not pertain to the investigation or are irrelevant, all data will be destroyed, says the sheriff’s order.

In addition, the document lays out how county sheriffs will be trained to fly the drone along with a spotter. A Time magazine cover story last week, said privacy concerns, although valid, may not be the biggest worry over use of domestic drones in dense urban areas like Alameda County. In fact, early drones models tend to crash at alarming rates, said Time, putting residents on the ground in danger.