On October 22nd the El Cerrito Police Department held a public forum on the use of drones by the police department. Sadly it was poorly attended by the public, perhaps because it was advertised as a discussion on Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) operations. Regardless we do appreciate Chief Keith having the public forum because there is nothing to require him to do so.
The police department talked about why they might use drones such as searching for missing persons, photography for crime scene investigations, and pursuit of a suspect for a violent crime to name a few. We had a good discussion on the current language in the policy about using drones for incidents of civil unrest and how that may be defined. The Chief agreed to look for a more specific definition of what he meant by that.
The difference that stood out is that the Police Department wants to have these guidelines be departmental policy rather than an enforceable ordinance. What this means is
- A departmental policy can be changed at any time for any reason without public notice
- If there are violations of the policy the department handles them as a human resource issue.
What El Cerrito Progressives and some local civil liberties organizations such as ACLU and Oakland Privacy are asking for is an ordinance. What this provides is
- Annual reporting of the use of the devices to council
- Council approval with public input of any new devices
- Civil remedies if the policy is violated. The civil remedy is what is called a cure and correct which means the city would be notified that they were in violation and asked to fix the problem. If they did not fix the problem it would then go to a judge. This allows for accountability outside of the system.
Essentially what the ordinance does is ask for transparency and accountability in a formalized manner. The issue of trust came up a lot in the meeting. The Police Department feels like the public does and should trust them to do the right thing. What the privacy advocates said is that there can easily be incidents of abuse no matter how well the intentions of the department. Public accountability deters abuse. Right now the policy when amended may be reasonable and something most people can support. That being said, if a staff change occurs or there is a new surveillance item the city wants they can get it with no transparency or public accountability. Right now we have to trust they will do the right thing.
Sadly as an institution, police departments have not always been shown to be trustworthy. Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley police departments all have had significant issues with violations of public trust. In addition, both Alameda and Contra Costa County Sheriffs Departments have used surveillance methods in a way that civil liberties organizations object to. (see link at the bottom of the page) While our department is much smaller it does not mean it could not happen here. It is not a matter of trust to us, it is a matter of solid policy guidelines with accountability. Just because we live in a more liberal area does not mean that such violations could not occur.
We understand that the public is generally exhausted with general political turmoil right now. But this is one of those slippery slopes where if we allow unregulated drones into our community then easily a next step is facial recognition technology which has been banned in Oakland, San Francisco and has a pending ban in Berkeley. We don’t want the line to be drawn at that point when that technology is already purchased as it is in this circumstance. The police purchased the drone a year ago before a policy had been put in place and before any public or council comment.
So what can you do?
- Read the policy here and send any feedback to email@example.com.
- As of now, Chief Keith is planning on presenting the policy at the December 17th council meeting. We will continue to keep you apprised of this. Follow us on Facebook for updates also.
- Email city council members and let them know your thoughts
Mayor Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto firstname.lastname@example.org
Mayor Pro-Tem Greg Lyman email@example.com
Councilperson Paul Fadeilli firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilperson Janet Abelson email@example.com
Councilperson Gabriel Quinto firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information