Sheriff Wants Aerial Surveillance Drones To Patrol Alameda County

Sheriff Greg Ahern seeks a grant to make Alameda County one of the first locales in California to deploy unmanned aerial systems in civilian settings.


Sheriff Gregory Ahern is seeking a grant to purchase unmanned aerial drones to provide video and infrared surveillance in police, fire and rescue settings. 

"We're not getting this thing on Tuesday," Ahern told his advisory committee in a briefing Monday afternoon.

But the sheriff's office has already done preliminary tests of a four-pound drone that could carry a camera to provide live video or an infrared device to track the heat of bodies, fires or possibly the lights of indoor pot growing operations.

The device, which would cost $50,000 to $100,000, would be remotely controlled by an operator on the ground and hover over crime or fire scenes.

"This would be less expensive, more valuable and have more uses (than a helicopter)," said Ahern, adding that a helicopter cost $3 million buy and upwards of $300 an hour to operate.

If Ahern's plan moves forward, Alameda County would become a pioneer in the deployment of small -- and, so far, nonlethal -- versions of the drones that the military is using in Afghanistan.

The county's plans are the tip of an iceberg that Congress set in motion when it passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization act earlier this year.

That act required the FAA to create rules to permit the deployment of civilian drones weighing 25 pounds or less - not just for law enforcement but for any business that wants eyes in the skies.

News sources that followed the development estimate that 30,000 civilian drones could be flying U.S. skies by 2020.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the move toward civilian drones.

“This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected,” the ACLU has said.

The FAA is supposed to write rules governing the use of civilian drones for law enforcement by the end of 2012. At that point the county will apply for a "certificate of authorization" or a permit spelling out what sorts of uses would be permitted.

Sheriff's department officials said Alameda County could be the first jurisdiction in California to deploy drones and among the first nationwide.

Members of the sheriff's advisory committee asked Monday if the drones would be armed. They were told there no.

Police surveillance technology has been in the news.

A recent Wall Street Journal article focused on how San Leandro police use an automated license plate tracking technology to capture and keep information about law-abiding citizens at the same time they use it to fight crime.

San Leandro political activist and school board member Mike Katz-Lacabe told the Journal that the technology gave police too much power to track citizens who had broken no law.

San Leandro Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli has countered that the plate reader solves crimes such as the recent recovery of a truck that stolen at gunpoint during a carjacking.

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Bill Gannon October 10, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Let me ask this question. How is this different from a police helicopter overflying your house/yard? The helo has video capability as well and can zoom in with its cameras and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR). But we do not see any stories about police helicopters flying over cities doing unwarranted surveillance do we? The use of drones as a new potential tool has everyone being paranoid. I always laugh when I hear people saying we are developing into a police state. Really, how often are any of you stopped by the police who ask you for "your papers." Get real and ask yourself, were you breaking vehicle codes when you last got pulled over? I know I did the last time I was stopped and received my ticket. That was over 20 years ago when I was not working in law enforcement. Since I have been employed, I have not been pulled over because I don't drive like an idiot and I do make a concerted effort to obey the traffic laws. If you do that, guess what? You don't get pulled over by the POLICE! If you have further questions, I refer you to the accompanying link. http://www.hinkles.us/chuckbo/Humor/Detectives.html
Warren October 10, 2012 at 08:10 PM
The police would love for people to equate a helicopter to a drone. However, there is a huge difference and it's a false comparison. First, the helicopters are large and noisy. You know where they are because you can't miss them. Drones are quiet and small. They can circle secretly right outside your yard or home, watching your every move and you will not likely notice them. Second, it is expected that 30,000 drones will be deployed by the government to watch Americans within the next few years. Drones are much less expensive than helicopters to purchase. They are orders of magnitude less expensive to operate. You can expect the number of drones to FAR exceed the number of helicopters very soon. 30,000 drones is just a start. So there will be many more peeping toms in the sky.
Warren October 10, 2012 at 08:41 PM
It's sad to dismiss as "paranoid" people who value the freedom and privacy that this country should protect. Authority must show significant justification for encroaching on our liberties. The step of making every move of every citizen subject to monitoring from the air is a step that must be stopped early. It starts out with a few drones here and there with some "safety" or "efficiency" justification, and grows to a police state. As James Madison said: "Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people, by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations." Right now, an American does not look up to the sky and wonder if their every move is being monitored. The dystopian future offered by the constant surveillance of drones will make every American wonder if they are being watched- not just outside of their home but also in the "privacy" of their back yard and wherever they go day or night. Americans will wonder if they must keep the blinds drawn to prevent high resolution cameras from watching them inside. Even then they will wonder if infrared cameras are watching them move around inside their home.
Daniel October 12, 2012 at 06:46 AM
A new sport is created. Yes, shooting drones out of the sky- better than skeet.
Warren October 12, 2012 at 07:42 AM
Eventually they will shoot back in "self defense". Do not threaten the government. They have a monopoly on that.


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