Sheriff Gregory Ahern wants to put Alameda County on the map as the first jurisdiction in California to use surveillance drones for law enforcement purposes, turning to technology previously used to hunt insurgents in Afghanistan that would allow police to peek inside buildings to detect heat sources of people or the lights of indoor pot growing operations.
Although Sheriff Ahern promised that the drones would only be used in “emergency” situations such as high speed chases, he told NBC News that the devices could also be used for “proactive policing,” including scanning buildings for heat sources such as people or lights that could indicate illegal marijuana growing operations.
The drones, which cost $50,000-$100,000 dollars, weigh just four pounds and can stream live video back to the operator. The Sheriff’s office is looking into whether a Homeland Security “community policing” grant can be utilized to cover the cost of the devices.
The ACLU points out that the drones violate the 4th Amendment because they allow police surveillance of private property without a warrant.
“Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas,” the group said in a statement.
The Sheriff’s office will join with 30 other law enforcement agencies later this month for its annual “Urban Shield” preparedness exercise, during which different versions of the drones will be field tested.
After Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization earlier this year, requiring the FAA to permit the operation of drones weighing 25 pounds or less, observers predicted that anything up to 30,000 spy drones could be flying in U.S. skies by 2020.
As we reported earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security announced in a solicitation that it would be testing small spy drones at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, signaling that the devices will be used for “public safety” applications in the near future.
Much larger drones are already being used in law enforcement operations across the country. The most infamous case involved the Brossart family in North Dakota, who were targeted for surveillance with a Predator B drone last year after six missing cows wandered onto their land. Police had already used the drone, which is based at Grand Forks Air Force Base, on two dozen occasions beforehand.
Police departments are also attempting to get approval to use surveillance blimps that hover over cities and watch for “suspicious activity.”
The U.S. Army recently tested a football field-sized blimp over the city of New Jersey. The blimp can fly for a period of 21 hours and “is equipped with high-tech sensors that can monitor insurgents from above.”
Recently released FAA documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the FAA gave the green light for surveillance drones to be used in U.S. skies despite the fact that during the FAA’s own tests the drones crashed numerous times even in areas of airspace where no other aircraft were flying.
The documents illustrate how the drones pose a huge public safety risk, contradicting a recent coordinated PR campaign on behalf of the drone industry which sought to portray drones as safe, reliable and privacy-friendly.