SAN JOSE — The use of a police drone in San Jose took a significant step toward reality this week with the release of a report by the city’s neighborhoods commission that endorses a one-year pilot program for the contentious surveillance device.
The report, released Wednesday, recommends the pilot program and thereby marks a full-circle moment for the city and police department, which came under heavy criticism last year when the drone was quietly acquired on a consent agenda with no public input.
The commission concludes in its report that it “shares the department’s view that the UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) can be a useful tool, one that can help the department to serve and protect the public,” and “that if the department continues to work openly with the council, the commission and the public, the public’s concerns can be alleviated.”
But there are still significant layers of bureaucracy to penetrate: The report now goes to the Public Safety, Finance, & Strategic Support Committee, which would then decide on a recommendation to the City Council. Even if things move briskly, final approval for the pilot program might not happen until at least August, given the council’s calendar and its summer break.
And federal regulators’ meticulousness over a use policy for public entities likely means the San Jose Police Department, by its own estimate, couldn’t formally get the drone — a camera-affixed, multi-rotor hobby helicopter — off the ground for at least two more years.
After a series of public meetings headed by the neighborhoods commission dating back to November, the department and commission members drew up a list of deployment rules, including strict access privileges, limiting allowable uses to bomb squad activities and exigent circumstances, barrage image storage, and modifying the device to add weapons, communication jammers and other intrusive surveillance components.
The drone was initially set to be bought with a Homeland Security grant, so it landed on the city’s agenda early last year as a hardly noticeable consent item slated for bulk approval along with other cursory purchases. In response to some of the outcry, the department says it will not archive drone footage and will prohibit its use for general surveillance.
Police presented the drone’s primary uses as bolstering bomb squad operations and hostage situations by giving them remote sight lines into dangerous scenarios.
But the public meetings, which civil-liberties groups contend should have preceded the purchase, appear to have mollified transparency concerns, which the police department readily acknowledged and apologized for last summer when the drone came to light.