By Robert Salonga
SAN JOSE — The community got its first chance to tell the San Jose Police Department what it thinks of the department’s acquisition of a drone, with the sentiment ranging from cautious support to outright rejection of what some considered the first step toward a surveillance state.
About 50 people packed a City Hall room Wednesday night to hear Deputy Chief Dave Hober make the first public pitch for the 3-foot-wide, camera-equipped Century Neo 660 six-rotor hobbyist helicopter that made San Jose the first Bay Area city to have such a device.
The discussion at the neighborhoods commission meeting was a belated hearing for many, borne out of controversy when it surfaced that earlier in the year the department quietly made the purchase, which was buried in City Council documents and away from wider public notice because it came via Homeland Security grant money rather than the city’s money.
That made for a dash of irony when Hober revealed Wednesday that his department was actually ineligible for the federal funds, meaning that the city ultimately paid for the approximate $7,000 cost. The department also repeated its earlier apology for not first gathering public input on the drone.
Hober outlined the anticipated uses for the drone, primarily to help the bomb squad to keep officers out of harm’s way. He also detailed its potential utility in other “exigent circumstances,” including hostage and barricade situations and search-and-rescue operations.
“What we would like to use it for involve explosive devices and potential issues where someone’s life is in danger,” Hober said during the 90-minute discussion.
Commissioner Nick Labosky, who represents South San Jose, said some of the concern over the drone might be mollified with community outreach that distinguishes the city’s drone from the more-familiar images of unmanned military drones dropping bombs on foreign targets on the other side of the world. He suggested public demonstrations of the hobbyist copter.
Hober said that idea was problematic because the SJPD drone is grounded until the department acquires a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, which they would not pursue without the public’s blessing.
“It will not be used unless and until it is determined this technology is right for San Jose,” he said.
Another commissioner suggested having someone who privately owns a similar device to perform the demonstration.
Juan Estrada, representing East San Jose, said he could support the use of a drone provided there are strict guidelines about when it can be used.
“Limiting the scope to certain situations is the best way to move forward, if we move forward with it,” he said.
But for a whole other set of people at the hearing, all of the talk about narrow usage policies overlooked the broader symptom of ever-increasing surveillance in the vein of the scandalous privacy intrusions by the NSA.
“This is not appropriate technology for San Jose. The idea of surveillance drones right away makes people fearful,” said Charlotte Casey of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. “We live in an atmosphere where we want to build closer ties with the community and police. We should not be the first community in Northern California to have the drone.”
Samena Usman, a government-relations consultant with the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said a drone represents a step toward the kind of controversy recently seen in New York City involving widespread surveillance of Muslims.
“The Muslim community is very concerned this technology could be used for surveillance on the Muslim community,” Usman said. “Questions need to be considered about how long will this information be kept for, and if it will be shared with federal agencies as well.”
The commission asked Hober to return with a draft usage policy to what is planned to be a larger community meeting about the drone, scheduled for Dec. 6 at City Hall.
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
The next public hearing about the San Jose Police Department’s proposed used of a drone is scheduled for 10 a.m. Dec. 6 in the community meeting section of the City Hall wing building.http://www.mercurynews.com/crime-courts/ci_26927967/san-jose-drone-debate-launches-citys-first-public