The Public Protection Committee of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will once again hear a pitch from the Sheriff’s Office as they request permission to purchase and begin deploying Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The proposal had once before been withdrawn in the face of ACLU and privacy advocate concerns.
The latest presentation, to be given by Captains Tom Wright and Tom Madigan of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, will outline not only the background of why the County can purchase the sUAS, but also how it will use it once certified for flight.
By definition, the sUAS classification is for unmanned drones weighing less than 4.4 pounds. One such model, the Lifesaver 425, boasts the ability to be deployed from the trunk of a car within seconds, and is virtually undetectable if flying above 100 feet. If flying at 50 feet, the manufacturer claims, its engines are virtually inaudible. The ability to capture video, GPS data, and images could prove beneficial for law enforcement in certain situations.
When previously presented to the County, privacy and civil liberties advocates spoke out against the project due to the lack of carefully constructed limitations on use. They feared that allowing the authorities to use the new technology before laws were written that would protect citizen’s rights presented a serious danger to civil liberties.
This time, the Sheriff’s Office detailed 10 missions that could justify sUAS deployment.
“The use of a sUAS can support first responders,” reads the staff report presented to the Committee by the Sheriff’s Office, “which would benefit from an aerial perspective and enable responders to detect dangers that could otherwise not be seen.”
Some of those situations include responding to hostage situations, dealing with explosive ordinances, and handling disaster response.
However, other situations outlined in the report will likely invoke the ire of the ACLU and a group called “Alameda County Against Drones.” Both are scheduled to offer presentations after the Sheriff’s Office.
One use that the groups will likely contest is granting the Sheriff’s Office the authority to use the sUAS in situations where “there is probable cause to believe that (1) the sUAS will record images of a place, thing, condition, or event; and (2) that those images would be relevant in proving that a certain felony had occurred or is occurring, or that a particular person committed or is committing a certain felony and use of the sUAS does not infringe upon the reasonable expectation of privacy.”
The Sheriff’s Office also will provide an additional layer of protection by limiting who can authorize the sUAS use. Before the sUAS can be deployed, a Sheriff’s Deputy with the rank of at least Captain must approve the mission.
In every mission, “when the sUAS is being flown, operators will take steps to ensure the camera is focused on the areas necessary to the mission and to minimize the inadvertent collection of data about uninvolved persons or places.”
Conditions of use, and the disposition of evidence collected (including images and video unrelated the mission) are documented on the proposed sUAS Mission Report Form.
One area outlined on the Mission Report Form not discussed in the report by the Sheriff’s Office is the use of the sUAS in situations of Mutual Aid.
The $31,646 sUAS would be paid for by an anti-terrorism grant administered by Cal-EMA and the Sheriff only needs consent from the Board of Supervisors to purchase the sUAS.