San Jose Police Dept. Spends Two Years Denying Any Interest In Drones Before Apologizing And Handing Over Documents
from the sorry-about-all-that-lying dept
The San Jose Police Department has spent more than two years denying it has a drone in its possession, having returned no responsive documents to MuckRock during its 2012 and 2013 “drone census” document requests. The drone the SJPD pretended to not have in its possession (until just recently) may have not been acquired until early 2014, but its grant application was actually submitted sometime prior to November 30, 2012. But this is how the SJPD responded during previous requests.
On December 17, 2012, an analyst within the SJPD Research and Development Unit specifically responded that the department had no records regarding research into drones or plans to use unmanned aerial vehicles.
In October 2013, SJPD swatted away a second request for records.
“Our Department does not use aerial drones, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), unmanned aerials (UAs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and/or unmanned aerial systems (UASs), nor does our Fiscal Unit have any records related to these items,” wrote Monique Villarreal, an R&D analyst in the SJPD chief’s office, on October 16, 2013.
Unfortunately for the SJPD, its drone-acquisition activities were generating paperwork elsewhere — documents it couldn’t hide, like city council meeting minutes in which funding for an unmanned aerial vehicle was discussed.
Now, the SJPD has turned over all of its drone documents, along with an apology for hiding this information from the public.
In hindsight, SJPD should have done a better job of communicating the purpose and acquisition of the UAS device to our community. The community should have the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns before we move forward with this project. To this end, we will first develop a community outreach plan before we take steps to deploy the UAS.
Following the completion of the community outreach efforts, the Department will then develop the policy and procedures that will provide an appropriate and practical framework to guide our operation of the UAS. At the same time, we will continue to research legal implications and Federal Aviation Administration requirements for the operation a UAS by SJPD.
We are confident that this technology can improve certain police operational efficiencies and help enhance public and officer safety in specific critical incidents. However, SJPD will not use the UAS until these outreach and procedural steps have been completed and approved.
This might be of some comfort going forward, but what the SJPD claims was just a failure to communicate was actually a more proactive effort to keep this information out of the public’s hands.
The drone documents that came bundled with an apology also contain assertions by the department that its new toy doesn’t fall under the FAA’s (very vague) regulatory policies. For one, the department doesn’t consider its unmanned aerial vehicle to be a “drone.” Despite its use by a law enforcement agency, the SJPD — citing an “advisory” issued in 1981 by the Dept. of Transportation — claims its UAV is completely indistinguishable from a hobbyist’s. But its decision to go with a hobbyist-style “drone” doesn’t make it automatically exempt from FAA regulation.
[T]he FAA has long made clear that all government agencies require authorization to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle in domestic airspace, regardless of the particular body type or where the unit was purchased. Hobby UAVs that weigh less than 55 pounds and fly under 400 feet are exempt from licensing requirements, but hobbyist rules do not apply to governmental applications.
This assertion also contradicts other memos released by the department, which state that the drone must remain shelved until its compliance with FAA regulations is determined.
The SJPD says the drone will have a very specific use — to act as eyes for its bomb squad. If that’s true, there’s no reason it should have kept its plans a secret for two years. A large percentage of the public would be on board with narrowly prescribed usage. Mission creep is always going to be an issue, but being open with the public (and asking for its opinion) is one of the best ways to prevent abuse of new surveillance technology. Having to be forced into openness isn’t exactly encouraging, but at least the SJPD will have more eyes on it going forward.