By Alan Skobin.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell recently reaffirmed that it is his “responsibility to ensure the safety of more than ten million residents, which includes using whatever tools necessary and available that can save the life of a human being.” McDonnell added that “I will not face the loved ones of a victim whose life could have been saved by our ability to deploy” and “I cannot imagine meeting with the spouse or parent of a fallen deputy and say, yes, we could have done more.”
These salient words from McDonnell were not made in the aftermath of horrific tragedies such as the recent shooting in Las Vegas that resulted in at least 59 murders and over 500 other shooting victims, the killing of 49 people and wounding of 58 others in a Florida club, the assassination of five police officers in Dallas, or any one of many other unthinkable acts. Rather, they were in response to a recent 5-4 vote by the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that called for the sheriff to ground all drones (also known as Unmanned Aircraft System or UAS) even though the Sheriff’s Department has implemented strict written orders that limit the use of drones to operations with extreme threats such as active shooter and hostage situations, barricaded suspects, search and rescue operations, and hazardous materials dangers.
These orders also mandate that each instance when a drone will be deployed be subject to a stringent approval process and procedures that regulate the operation, and also contain a specific prohibition against the use of drones in random surveillance missions or missions that would violate the privacy rights of the public.
After that vote, Commission Chair Robert Bonner stated:
“Now we’ve lost credibility with the sheriff…we shot ourselves in the foot.”
As a former member and vice president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian head of the Los Angeles Police Department that is responsible for setting all policy and which played a pivotal role in guiding the LAPD through implementation of a complex Federal Consent Decree, I concur with Bonner’s observation and am dismayed at the vote, particularly given the stated reasons and rhetoric that led up to it.
The COC is an advisory body that was created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2016 to improve public transparency and accountability with respect to the Sheriff’s Department. In January, 2017, after the Sheriff’s Department acquired several drones, the Board of Supervisors asked the COC to evaluate the program and make recommendations. It should have been expected that the review would not only solicit and consider public input, but also that any subsequent vote by the COC would be grounded in facts and sound policy. Sadly, that did not happen in the latter.
The majority of commission members seem to have placed little, if any, weight on the report of their own ad-hoc committee which stated that drones “are capable of giving the LASD situational awareness that would not otherwise be possible in certain situations, and there is little doubt they will save lives in the future,” and which contained 10 recommendations that addressed transparency, accountability and public safety, all of which McDonnell had agreed to adopt. Instead, they opted for off-base political rhetoric and voted to disregard the thoughtful recommendations and instead discontinue use of drones for any purpose.
Further, while expressing a belief that it is “unfortunate the Sheriff did not obtain public comment before implementing the use of its UAS program,” the report of the ad-hoc committee noted that “at the suggestion of the ad hoc committee, the Sheriff recently set up mechanisms to directly receive comments from the public,” adding:
“His willingness, even now, to reach out, receive and evaluate public comment is laudable” and that “Implementing these recommendations, in our view, will help build public trust.”
Interestingly, the recent online survey by the Sheriff’s Department resulted in an overwhelming 89 percent of the more than 3,000 respondents supporting use of a drone in certain high risk operations.
One commissioner expressed her belief the drone program should be grounded, in part, because of the “the very clear evidence of harm that the use of such drones can produce in the most vulnerable communities.” In that same letter, the writer cited concerns that have been raised about the militarization of law enforcement. Public comment also included opinions such as “[t]he addition of Drones would further signify the structural and operational formation of the LASD as an occupying institution that operates as a counter-insurgency force,” “Drones are globally associated with death and destruction. In people’s consciousness, drones represent the murder of thousands of people including children,” and concerns that use of drones will be subject to mission creep.
What the commission majority didn’t appear to do in considering this public input was properly balance it with information contained in the report of its own sub-committee, such as the lifesaving benefits of the drones, and the specific prohibition against their use in random surveillance missions or missions that would violate the privacy rights of the public. They also didn’t compare facts with fiction because the LASD drones are a mere 20-inches long and in no way resemble the large multi-million dollar “Predator B” or “Global Hawk” drones used by the military (which have wingspans of approximately 66 feet and 130 feet, and length of 36 feet and 47.6 feet, respectively), or give due regard to an earlier report by the Office of the Inspector General that had five key findings, including “There appear to be proper safeguards…to operate the UAS in a responsible and safe manner keeping privacy rights in mind,” and the “Order appears to be narrowly tailored to the public safety missions to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, and does not allow for the improper surveillance of the public.”
Somehow it just didn’t matter to five of the commissioners that the drones are a tightly regulated and controlled tool that save lives, and that the sheriff not only agreed with the OIG findings, but agreed to implement the 5 separate OIG recommendations, as well as the 10 recommendations of the CAC. Nothing seemed to be enough for the naysayers, except truly nothing when it comes to drones.
The 5-4 vote accepted the rhetoric despite the specific prohibition against their use in random surveillance missions or missions that would violate the privacy rights of the public, and gave weight to utterly unfounded charges, with one commissioner actually announcing he was “thrilled” with the vote. Bonner rightly predicted the sheriff was likely to reject the recommendation because the drone is a “tool that will save the lives of deputies and…save the lives of citizens in our community,” and the sheriff “cannot responsibly just say I’ll ground these things.” Even beyond that, he appropriately pointed out that the solution to ground the drones permanently “does not provide for oversight of the limited use of a drone by the LASD, the very thing that the COC was established to do.”
The nine commissioners undoubtedly have different political perspectives and life experiences, which is a healthy thing for any deliberative body, and their efforts toward transparency are both important and commendable. But one critical thing I and many of my colleagues recognized during our service as police commissioners was that credibility with police leaders and rank and file personnel was the key currency to acceptance and successful implementation of both our informal recommendations and actual policy changes.
Much of this credibility came from considering and balancing varied interests, and then making decisions that were grounded in facts. The necessity for that credibility is doubly true for entities such as the COC because unlike the Police Commission, which is the actual head of the LAPD and has the legal authority to establish policy, the COC is an advisory board and their recommendations can be rejected by the sheriff.
As such, it is critical that reason, not unfounded or political rhetoric, underlie their decisions.
The discussion and majority vote failed to meet this standard, and undermined the credibility that is so important if the COC is to fulfill its important role to “promote meaningful reform within the LASD and to help restore public trust between the communities it serves.”
Certainly, no one expects the COC commissioners to be cheer leaders, nor should they be. But they are leaders, and the manner in which they undertake and deliberate important issues, taking into account both public and professional input, will have a profound effect on their ability to make a difference.
Hopefully this misstep by a majority of the COC will not have damaged the ability of the COC to persuade the sheriff, rank and file personnel, or the general public with respect to the important work that they undertake.