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Supervisors Hear Sheriff, Civil Libertarians Discuss Drones

No decision made at a committee meeting Thursday as Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern works to assuage critics' fears that surveillance could get out of hand.

By Bay City News Service

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office brought a proposal to the county Board of Supervisors Public Protection Committee today to purchase a small unmanned aircraft system, but amid privacy concerns from civil rights groups the committee made no decision on whether the program would move  forward.

The unmanned aircraft, commonly called a drone, would have a number of proposed missions to improve public safety in Alameda County said Sheriffs Department Capt. Tom Madigan.

Some of the missions include crime scene preservation and documentation, support in explosive ordinance disposal, hazardous materials spills, search and rescue missions and public safety and life preservation, Madigan said.

In addition, fire authorities would be able to request response to use the drones to find hot spots, Madigan said.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern insists that the device is not a drone, which gives the impression of a weapon-baring military drone, but a system to assist in an on-mission circumstance only.

"There is no intention to add weapons to the system," Ahern said. 

The system has been in the works for more than two and a half years, Ahern said today at the hearing.

The sheriff's office has been in direct communication with the program's opposition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, to hash out any concerns, he said.

ACLU spokesman Will Matthews expressed privacy as the organization's top concern. 

"Before a drone is deployed, we need to put into place strict privacy safeguards to ensure drones won't be used for warrantless mass surveillance," Matthews said.

Madigan said the drone, which weighs 4.4 pounds, will not invade anyone's privacy and would only be deployed by approval from a command-level officer with the rank of captain or higher.

It can only stay airborne for 12 to 25 minutes, "so it won't be patrolling Alameda County," he said.

Matthews said that the ACLU believes the sheriff's office is committed to take consideration of the privacy concerns, but the benefits of the drone still need to be assessed.

There are loopholes in the guidelines proposed by the sheriff's office that will allow alterations to the program without further Board of Supervisors approval, Matthews said.

Matthews said that with improving technology, the program could go from one that will include a lightweight drone that is in the air for a short period of time to a heavy-duty device that can stay airborne for several hours.

Supervisor Richard Valle, part of the committee, showed concern with the program, siding with many of the protesters who voiced their opinions in the public comment part of the hearing. 

"Civil rights takes precedence," Valle said of the program. Valle added that he hopes the sheriff's office continues to work on the draft to have the "best policy in the nation."

If the committee sends the proposal to the full Board of Supervisors, and it is approved, Ahern said the program would go in effect after about a year of training.

Ahern said the system would cost between $31,000 and $50,000, depending on certain enhancements, which would be paid for through a grant and the sheriff's office general budget. 

The intention of the sheriff's office is only to purchase one or two systems at the most, Ahern said.

If the board approves the program and grant funds are awarded, the Federal Aviation Administration will need to give a certification of authorization, Madigan said. 

Should the FAA certify the sheriff's office competency in executing the system's missions, Ahern said the intention is to have a one-year pilot program and report back on its effectiveness. 

Supervisor Scott Haggerty, also part of the committee, seemed interested, but not ready to send it to the full board.

Haggerty said he wants the system "if it could assist in saving lives," but added, "there's a lot of debate to still go on." 

The committee made no decision today and there is no scheduled follow-up hearing.

"We're going to continue to work with the ACLU, get all the input from today, and craft something we can all live with," Madigan said.

Madigan said it could take some time to have a new policy in place to bring back to the committee. 

Concerned members of the public, including the coalition group Alameda County Against Drones and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, were in attendance at the hearing to voice dissatisfaction with the potential program.

Copyright © 2013 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

Stephen Carbonaro February 17, 2013 at 04:06 PM
amongst us that we lock up and feed three squares a day. But cutbacks have taken away many things in the last few years, and those county services should be restored. before any new projects are funded. People first , things second.
Albert Rubio February 17, 2013 at 04:57 PM
I agree with you Stephen on pushing back on the drones. It is always in the political interest to place budget cuts just where it hurts the public the most in order to scare it to accept tax increases or to grant still greater power to the state. I do think there is massive misappropriations on every level of government with hidden slush funds while they cry for more and more money. The public schools for example devour almost twice the inflation adjusted monies that they did in 1970 with no academic improvement. Similar misappropriations are probably true of police and fire.
Matt Cullum February 18, 2013 at 08:09 PM
I feel what the opposition is saying, but Luddites always oppose new tech. I support the use of drones. In the long run, helicopters are more expensive and they serve a different use anyway. Drones can track runaway cars, which will save lives by eliminating LEO car chases. I really don't understand the privacy issue if helicopters are used as an alternative anyway. As someone who has actually has lived in high crime areas, I wholeheartedly welcome another resource to improve my living standard.
Albert Rubio February 19, 2013 at 04:18 AM
This is not about opposing new tech. It is about the expansion of police power and which is a potential for abuse against individual rights. Police power is expanded by the nature of the tools they are allowed to use. “The main political problem is how to prevent the police power from becoming tyrannical. This is the meaning of all the struggles for liberty.” - Mises
Stephen Carbonaro February 19, 2013 at 08:15 AM
First, UAVs, not drones. Second, I am offended by being characterized as a Luddite because I believe in the Constitution.Helicopters can track runaway cars, but this does not eliminate police pursuits or prevent the lives they cost.. Third, privacy is NOT the issue, as we lost the right to that with the signing of the Patriot Act, written before 9/11/2001. And how does the purchase with our tax dollars of these unnecessary machines improve your living standard? The only ones who will receive that benefit is the salesman, and if standard federal purchasing procedure are followed, Greg Ahern. Open your eyes, please. If you have in any way benefited from being American or living in America, Then stand up and fight for America , and the Constitution that created it. To do anything else is to be a good 1940 era German.

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