In June, a Los Angeles crowd was celebrating the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup victory when people noticed a small drone overhead. It appears that members of the crowd thought the drone was operated by the L.A. Police Department. They threw clothing and shoes at the aircraft and eventually knocked it out of the sky.
While that particular drone was not police-owned, both the LAPD and the San Jose Police Department do own drones. The LAPD received its drones free of charge from the Seattle Police Department, which decided it could not use the equipment because of extensive public outcry. The San Jose Police Department purchased its drone in January for $7,000 but recently apologized for failing to notify the affronted local community about acquiring the aircraft and its intended use.
Surveillance is about power, and police power is a sensitive topic in America right now. Low-cost surveillance enables law enforcement to track unwitting citizens, target and alienate marginalized communities, develop profiles on individuals, and use information out of context in ways that threaten both privacy and First Amendment freedoms. Drones bring the added baggage, rightly or not, of being associated with militarization. Throwing a T-shirt at a drone is not a prank; it’s a protest—albeit a protest that could get you in serious trouble for destroying somebody else’s property.
The California Legislature has taken the pulse of its citizens and decided to regulate law enforcement drone use. Otherwise, police use of drones for aerial surveillance will operate in an unchecked legal gray zone. Bill AB 1327 requires law enforcement drone-users to get a warrant. A warrant requirement does not prevent law enforcement from using drones, which are cheap and useful technology; it checks the scope of drone surveillance by involving legal standards and a judge.