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Alameda County Sheriff’s drone program proves divisive

on March 18, 2013

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s plans to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles for law enforcement, for the collection of photographic evidence at crime scenes, and for aerial support of emergency response operations in the county have provoked debate and raised privacy concerns among residents.

The sheriff’s plan, which is currently awaiting a decision from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection Committee, continues to be a divisive subject in Oakland and Berkeley.

“Traditional forms of aerial surveillance are very expensive and this natural resource limitation presents a barrier to abuse,” Linda Lye, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union said.  “When technology lowers the cost of collecting information, the potential for collection of information out of curiousity is opened up, and the need for legal safeguards is essential.”

Berkeley Councilman Jesse Arreguin said that although there could be limited uses for drones in emergency response to fires and natural disasters, the use of unmanned systems for law enforcement would result in the abuse of the privacy of citizens.

“We advise the sheriff not to buy a drone,” Arreguin said. “Although we do not have control over our airspace, we have made it clear that we do not want drones flying over Berkeley.”


  1. Maximillien on March 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    While it is certainly a creepy prospect that drones could be flying overhead, snapping photos of folks sunbathing in their backyards, the technology might help alleviate Oakland’s crime problem — particularly the understaffed police department. 911 response times are woefully inadequate, and if the OPD could send out a quad-copter to scope out the scene while police are on their way, it might help.

    Some aspects could even be automated to reduce the demand on law-enforcement personnel. For example, Oakland could scatter a couple of drone “nests” on top of buildings in the most troubled areas of the city, each one housing a drone and its charging station. When the Shotspotter network hears a gunshot, the closest drone is awakened and it automatically flies from its nest to the location of the shot to get quick surveillance of the scene so the police can know what’s happening and what to expect when they arrive, maybe even catch a photo of the perp(s) if they’re lucky. When the drone gets to the scene, somebody at HQ could take over and fly it manually to further track the action and get photos of the crime scene.

    If drones are used in a reactive way like this (rather than constantly flying around taking pictures of everyone) it’s a win-win: the OPD gets badly-needed help without needing additional staff, residents get a faster and more effective police response, and drones are only used when they’re needed, rather then randomly flying around and invading people’s privacy. The idea of these machines hovering overhead may seem creepy and dystopian to some, but if it helps prevent even a fraction of the needless killing on Oakland’s streets, it merits some serious consideration.

    • Monica on March 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      Whittling away our personal freedoms by having big brother on areal surveillance will not be a deterrent for crime. Personally, I find your scenario of the “nesting drone” very amusing. It reminds me of the 1980’s with the Regan Administration’s missile defense program (SDI) or, as we dubbed it, “Star Wars”. Ineffective.
      *I also don’t support furthering an economic depression by expanding unemployment.

    • oakland peep on March 20, 2013 at 4:33 pm

      My thoughts exactly. I would love to see some of these punks who think they’re in the wild west get caught on video. It seems like police never finds anything but bullet holes in our neighbors windows. A drone will have a much faster response time than an officer and is less intrusive than a helicopter (which really makes me feel like I am in a police state, when I hear them come out).

      Hell they can use my roof as a nest, if it means a budding murderer can be caught before the inevitable happens.

      I can understand why people are concerned about it. But as with any technology, it’s here to stay, and it would be better to figure out reasonable boundaries and good uses, rather than just hide our heads in the sand about it.

  2. local loudmouth on March 20, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Why should we avoid the tough decisions about new technologies?
    Imagine having your next pizza delivered by a drone? Your adult diapers? Cold Beer? It’s coming in the near future. $150 bucks apiece and everyone will want one.
    Why risk the lives of our first responders when it’s not necessary?
    They deserve the best protection money can buy and drones are a cost effective method of saving lives.
    The Hayward Fault is overdue. 300-400 thousand people could be homeless, right here in the East Bay. Imagine a disaster on the the scale of Katrina.
    Bring on the drones, with modern laws to guide their development and application.

  3. Alex on March 28, 2013 at 3:35 am

    I’m not down with militarized drones flying around civilian skies…

    • local loudmouth on March 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      Alex: Take two aspirin and those militarized drones will go away.

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