The Los Angeles Police Department approved a test program to deploy drones alongside its officers on Tuesday, with the Police Commission voting 3-1 to roll out a year-long “small Unmanned Aerial System” program.
Per the L.A. Times, the hotly contested decision allows police in the city to deploy the robots in a variety of conditions, including “tactical situations” (i.e. involving SWAT teams), searches and natural disasters. The Police Commission will require a high-ranking officer to approve each and every deployment, and says no LAPD drones will be armed with any kind of weaponry, lethal or less-lethal. Civilians will also receive reports on when and how the LAPD uses drones.
Activists protested the decision and just 97 of 1,675 emails the LAPD received after it asked for community feedback supported the drone rollout, the Times reported. That is perhaps understandable, as police militarization in the US has already approached crisis levels, accountability for abuse of law enforcement authority is similarly low, and mission creep in which police roll out the drones in increasingly invasive or legally dubious scenarios seems more or less inevitable in the current environment.
There’s also the issue of the LAPD specifically, which has seen significant reforms since its most notorious days in the 1980s and 1990s but still regularly doles out tens of millions in civil-rights settlements. The Times‘ editorial board wrote an editorial approving the LAPD’s “cautious” approach to drones, though it admitted questions such as what happens to the incidental footage UAVs capture during their missions remain open.