ALCO BOARD OF SUPERVISORS | The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to remove a controversial request by its sheriff’s department to purchase an unmanned aerial aircraft at Tuesday’s meeting.
The request is buried in a agenda item detailing a $1.2 million Homeland Security grant to the Alameda County Sheriffs Department. Included in the breakdown is $31,646 allocated for the purchase of an “Unmanned Aerial System. The small aircraft, weighing four pounds and featuring a four-foot wingspan, is commonly referred to as a “drone.”
According to a memo sent by Alameda County Sherriff Greg Ahern, the drone will have multiple uses, including providing real-time aerial information for first-time responders for disaster recovery, terrorism and chemical accidents. However, neither the agenda item nor memo from Ahern mentions surveillance or the potential for weaponizing the drone for the East Bay’s urban landscape. That omission has the ACLU and some residents worried about its unfettered use, if approved by the Board of Supervisors.
In a tersely-written letter sent Monday by the ACLU to the Board of Supervisors, it asks for the agenda item to be removed from consideration at Tuesday morning’s meeting. “We are particularly troubled because the documents submitted to the Board by the Sheriff are not candid about the Sheriff’s intended use of the drone,” the letters says. “While the Sheriff emphasizes “search and rescue” type uses, documents from the California Emergency Management Association make clear that the Sheriff intends to use the drone for surveillance and intelligence gathering.”
In addition, the ACLU is requesting the Board of Supervisors withhold approval of the purchase of a drone until a public vetting of its potential dangers to the public and safeguards against misuse of the technology is enacted. “We are concerned that the Sheriff’s effort to push through the summary approval of Agenda Item 22 would effectively usurp the Board’s authority to decide these important matters in a considered and transparent manner.”
The issue of the sheriff’s department seeking approval for a drone first came up last month after Cal-EMA approved grant funding for the purchase of the drone. However, the ACLU says the sheriff department’s grant application listed “intelligence and information sharing” as one of the drone’s purposes, along with “law enforcement terrorism prevention-oriented activities.”
The ACLU also claims the Sheriff Department’s is further along in purchasing the drone than publicly known. It says a public records request showed three vendors have already submitted proposals to the sheriff’s department and all vastly exceed the roughly $31,000 federal grant, including one $90,000 model that also features optional thermal imaging and zoom features at an additional cost.
While some on the Board of Supervisors have voiced tacit approval of the drone request, the majority have shown extraordinary financial support for Ahern and his sheriff’s department recently. During budget deliberations last June, four of the five supervisors overwhelmingly approved a nearly $20 million expenditure to the department. The approval was somewhat surprising to many in other belt-tightening county agencies when it was clear Ahern never even publicly asked for the budget boost.