Civilian Commission Votes to Ask LA Sheriff to Halt Drone Program

The civilian commission that oversees the L.A. Sheriff’s Department voted 5-4 Thursday to ask Sheriff Jim McDonnell to ground the department’s drone program. The action sets up a test of the commission’s influence over the sheriff, who has expressed satisfaction that his rules governing drone use address concerns about privacy and keeping the aircraft unarmed.

The Sheriff’s Department has one drone. It can only use it for armed hostage situations, bomb squad operations, and search and rescue, according to McDonnell.


The department started using the drone in January; it was the first such move by a police agency in Los Angeles County. It’s been used about a half dozen times, according to the department.

Activists worry about what they call “mission creep” – they fear drones eventually will be armed and used to spy on people who are not suspected of a crime.

A majority of the Civilian Oversight Commission urged McDonnell in July to ground the drone, citing concerns about privacy and the potential trauma to people caused by quiet unmanned aircraft overhead.

The panel was divided over a set of recommended restrictions, including that McDonnell “explicitly and unequivocally” state his opposition to arming any drones used by the department. It didn’t hold a vote at the time on whether to recommend grounding the drone.

“My assurance is that we have laid out the guidelines in our policies and procedures as to when they can be deployed, when they can’t be deployed, how they have to be deployed and then accountability mechanisms for reporting on when they would be deployed and what the outcomes were,” McDonnell told KPCC.

Hundreds of police and fire departments have drones, and many law enforcement leaders see drones as an important part of policing in the future – particularly in urban areas.

In California, approximately 30 police agencies use them. Across the nation, nearly 350 police, sheriff, fire and emergency medical agencies have drones, according to The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

The LAPD has had two drones since 2014, but it has never used them. It has asked the L.A. Police Commission to approve a one-year pilot project in which specially-trained officers would have access to one drone for things such as search-and-rescue operations, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response and incidents involving barricaded and armed suspects.

This story will be updated. [Click for More]