Protestors opposed to the Alameda County Sheriff’s plan to obtain unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) held a press conference at Oakland City Hall on Thursday, October 18 in coordination with the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Local media reported that the Sheriff’s office has already conducted “preliminary tests of a four-pound drone.” Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern has indicated that UAVs utilized by his office would not be armed.
The ACLU of Northern California has filed a public records request to the Alameda County Sheriff seeking the department’s explicit justification for using drones, the projected cost of acquiring, operating and maintaining UAVs, and how the Sheriff’s office plans to use drones .
MuckRock submitted its own public records request to the Sheriff in July as part of its Drone Census, a joint project with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Alameda County Sheriff was not among the agencies that applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for authorization to operate drones, but was suggested by a MuckRock user.
The two-page memorandum MuckRock received in response to its request sheds some light on the information on the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office’s planned use of drones.
According to the July 2012 memorandum, the Sheriff’s Office plans to seek federal funding to purchase its UAV. While the memo does not indicate the precise funding agency, references to the “Bay Area Security Objectives and Goals” suggest that the Sheriff will apply to the Urban Area Security Initiative through the Department of Homeland Security, just as San Francisco police sought to do.
The Alameda County Sheriff seeks to purchase a Draganfly drone (model unspecified), which will be equipped with “live video downlink and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR).” FLIR cameras detect infrared radiation given off by heat sources, such as people and animals. In California in particular, thermal imaging systems such as FLIR have been used by law enforcement to search out indoor cannabis production facilities.
In its funding request to purchase a drone, the Alameda County Sheriff indicates that UAVs “save money, enhance safety, save lives, and can be utilized across a myriad of public safety disciplines.” The memo suggests that a drone could provide “real-time situational analysis” in response to “terrorist related events,” explosive ordnance threats and fires without putting personnel at risk.
Alameda County SWAT commanders indicated that a drone “would be valuable to assist with barricaded suspects, surveillance (investigative and tactical), perimeters, intelligence gathering, rough terrain, suspicious persons, large crowd control disturbances, etc.”
While the memo projects that a UAV matching its specifications would cost $30,000, more recent estimates from the Sheriff’s Office put the figure between $50,000 to $100,000. The latter estimate closely matches quotes prepared for police in Seattle, Austin and San Diego.