San Leandro accepted a nearly $32,000 federal grant that will allow its police department to purchase a drone. The San Leandro City Council, however, did so despite the city not having a specific drone policy.
The lack of a policy for local law enforcement to use drones has drawn concerns from privacy advocates in the East Bay and across the country. Drones are often used by public safety agencies to survey danger areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to police and fire personnel.
For example, drones belonging to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department were deployed during last year’s devastating wildfires in Northern California. But there have also been cases when drones have been used for crowd control during political demonstrations and public places.
“When surveillance technology has been used, history has shown it has been abused,” said Mike Katz-Lacabe, a San Leandro resident and local privacy advocate. “From stalking former love interests with law enforcement records systems to looking down women’s shirts with surveillance cameras, or disproportionate targeting of minorities. It is important that we have appropriate policies and oversight.”
Katz-Lacabe said accepting the grant to purchase a drone without a policy for its use and time length for the storage of the data its captures follows a pattern by San Leandro Police. He pointed to a similar request by police for Automated License-Plate Readers over a decade ago.
There is no mechanism for independent oversight of San Leandro Police’s use of a drone. The police department’s current policy only references drone use by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. There is also no process for reporting the future use of drones in San Leandro to the public.
“It is ironic that China may have more information about how drones are used by our police department than the city council that ostensibly has oversight of such things,” Katz-Lacabe said. The use of Chinese-made drones worries national security experts since many fear they could have the ability to pass sensitive data to the Chinese government.
San Leandro City Attorney Richard Pio Roda said the police department will create its own drone policy and later presented it to the council, but only for review.
“These are administrative, internal policies, operational policies that the council does not approve. The police department puts in the policies and they follow the Lexipol policies that are best practices,” Pio Roda said. Lexipol is a private firm that helps thousands of law enforcement agencies across the county create police policies and training protocols.
“It creates a dilemma,” San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter said, acknowledging the decision to accept money for a drone before approving a policy for its use.
The council later voted to accept the $31,599 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice JAG Fund on May 20. Councilmember Victor Aguilar, Jr. voted against, Councilmember Deborah Cox was absent.