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Friday, February 8, 2013 - Page updated at 03:00 p.m.
Heated hearing airs distrust over SPD drones
By Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporter
There was no shortage of strong opinions — or strong words — when a Seattle City Council committee took up the issue of unmanned police drones during an often heated hearing Wednesday.
“You’re more dangerous than Nazi,” Alex Zimmerman, an activist with Stand Up America, told the members of the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee. “You’re more dangerous than Communist; more dangerous than Gestapo; more dangerous than KGB.”
Another speaker called committee members “idiots” for even considering an ordinance that would govern the Seattle Police Department’s use of drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems.
“Not only ‘no drones,’ but no more council. You guys are crooks. You guys are idiots. You’re telling us they got them already, we have to use them ... You guys are becoming a police state ... The people do not want this,” said Samuel Bellomio, also with Stand Up America.
The meeting, called to discuss a proposed ordinance that would set restrictions on how and when the police department can use the tiny aircraft, ended with committee Chairman Bruce Harrell saying the conversation had been helpful and would likely lead to the measure being refined.
The proposal is to go back before the committee for a possible vote Feb. 20, then on to the full council Feb. 25.
Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the ACLU would prefer that Seattle police did not have drones. However, since the department had purchased two with money from a federal Homeland Security grant, she said, it’s important for the city to establish “strong restrictions.”
She recommended that the ordinance be refined to include a more “robust audit provision” and language stating the drones are part of a pilot program.
“We’d like to be able to see if it’s effective and then have the council determine if it should still be going on,” Shaw said.
The proposed restrictions were written after the police department received approval last year from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones, sparking an uproar among residents, privacy advocates and civil-rights activists.
The FAA approval was granted after President Obama signed a law that compelled the agency to plan for safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015.
The restrictions would ban the use of drones for general surveillance or for flights over open-air assemblies.
It also would require a warrant be obtained in all but “exigent” or emergency circumstances, such as situations involving hostages, search-and-rescue operations, the pursuit of armed felons, bomb threats and the detection of “hot spots” in fires, or for the collection of traffic data.
The proposed restrictions would ban the use of drones for the collection of information on anyone not specifically named in a warrant, but specify that information collected inadvertently while an unmanned system was being operated in good faith would not violate the ordinance.
That last clause was troubling to members of the audience, including Chris Stearns of the Human Rights Commission, who said the city should make it illegal to use data inadvertently collected by drones in criminal prosecutions.
Committee member Nick Licata said the term “exigent” was too broad and that he would like the ordinance to specify that the drones can only be used for hostage situations and bomb threats.
He also suggested the ordinance specify that the use of drones in emergency circumstances would require the written authorization of an assistant police chief or captain, instead of a lieutenant as proposed.
The ordinance also states that any data collected by drones would be deleted after 30 days unless there was a “reasonable belief that the data is evidence of criminal activity or civil liability.”
The measure would also set up provisions for audits and an annual review.
The issue has ignited strong feelings among opponents. During a public meeting in October, protesters shouted down police speakers during a presentation on the aircraft.
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