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Police Commission ignores opposition; OKs use of drones

LOS ANGELES — The Police Commission Oct. 17 voted to allow the Los Angeles Police Department to move forward with a one-year pilot program to assess the use of an “unmanned aerial system,” a decision that resulted in a massive demonstration outside police headquarters that disrupted downtown traffic and led to the arrest of several demonstrators.

The commission voted 3-1 to allow the LAPD to use drones in select tactical situations for the next year and then reconsider the program. Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill cast the dissenting vote and Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith was not present for the vote.

Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdullah was one of many members of the public who addressed the commission, voicing their distrust of the LAPD and disapproval of the program. Abdullah was critical of the commission for surveying the public on the uses of drones and then ignoring the results of the survey.

“Weeks ago you had 5,500 people on record opposing drones,” Abdullah said. “And then you reached out for ‘yes’ votes. You tried to go around black and brown communities but guess what happened. White people don’t want drones, either.

“You know that you’re supposed to be representing the people and you won’t,” she added.

Opponents of the use of drones protested in front of police headquarters before the meeting and continued their protest at the conclusion of the meeting, blocking the intersection of First and Main streets just outside of the LAPD headquarters.

Three people opposed to the use of drones by the Los Angeles Police Department sit down in the middle of First Street Oct. 17 after the Los Angeles Police Commission approved the use of drones in certain tactical situations. The demonstrators were handcuffed and led away by police. (Photo by Tyrone Cole)

Supporters of drones say they can ensure public safety during critical incidents by providing “real-time information and situational awareness during volatile and life-threatening incidents.”

But James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyer’s Guild, called drones “military toys.”

“It’s part of the militarization of police enforcement happening all over this country and it’s led to nothing but a violation of people’s rights,” he said.

Lafferty said the use of new and innovative law enforcement programs have historically affected black and brown communities at a disproportionate rate and that the new program is like, “state-sponsored stalking.”

The lone vote against the decision came from one of the commission’s two black members. McClain-Hill said the LAPD should have done a better job of gaining public trust before launching the program.

“My concern was not specifically with the implementation of the pilot program using those guidelines, but really with the timing of the adoption of the guidelines absent the department and the commission doing more to respond to the anxieties to the members of the public,” she said.

Matt Johnson, the other black commissioner, issued a statement that said, “the issues and concerns that have been raised are understandable and I thank those who have taken the time to have their voices heard.”

“A lot of thought and research went into drafting the original guidelines and the several changes that have been made to the initial draft are evidence that we take these concerns seriously,” he said.

According to the guidelines, only SWAT personnel will operate the drones and will approve and document all instances of deployment. Deployments shall be approved by the on-scene supervisor or responding special operations staff officer or commander and notifications of all deployments will be sent to the Office of Special Operations, the chief of police and the Office of Special Operations Commission Liaisons.

Permissible uses include barricaded suspects, active shooters, explosive devices and explosions, hostage situations, natural disasters, hazardous materials incidents, search and rescue operations, perimeter searches for armed suspects with superior firepower, an extraordinary tactical advantage or who are wanted for assault with a firearm against a police.

“We know that this police force cannot be trusted,” community activist Greg Akili told the commission. “We know that this police force, if given a pencil, would turn it into a weapon. We know this police force wants more money to oppress and control communities. That is what they are here for. And if they get drones, they will ultimately turn them into weapons.

“This is an important issue,” Akili added. “Unfortunately, the people that are going to make the decision don’t see it as an important issue. They are going to make a decision based on not what we say, or what’s been said by the public. They are going to make the decision because they are here to protect the institution and the people in it.”

Commission President Steve Soboroff defended the police department from its critics while voting in favor of the new guidelines.

“The issue here [among the opposition] is a universal distrust and categorical distrust of the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department, and I will close by saying that I have a general trust and respect of the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department, and I will vote for this policy as a member,” Soboroff said.

City News Service also contributed to this story.