A drone operated by the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office flew over a crowd of protesters in 2018. The Oakland police currently don't own their own drones. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The Oakland Police Department wants to purchase several drones and use them to track down fleeing suspects, conduct surveillance of reckless drivers at sideshows, and gain a bird’s-eye view of disasters like earthquakes and fires, among other potential uses. The department is asking the City Council to approve use policies for the drones at tomorrow’s council meeting, a requirement before purchasing them. 

Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission, a group of civilian volunteers that advises the City Council on “best practices to protect Oaklanders’ privacy rights in connection with the City’s purchase and use of surveillance equipment and other technology,” approved an impact report, and use policies, for the drones in May. The impact report examines how drones could infringe on people’s privacy and other rights, while the use policies are designed to minimize the potential for misuse of surveillance technology by the city.

As per the civilian commission’s recommendations, OPD will be prohibited from using the drones to observe anyone “based on their individual characteristics, such as but not limited to race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender, clothing, tattoos, and/or sexual orientation when not connected to actual information about specific individuals related to criminal investigations.”

The commission also recommended to the City Council that Oakland not spend any city funds on the drones due to the budget crisis, which is worsening and projected to result in a $62 million shortfall by the end of the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Overspending by OPD, including roughly $19 million on unbudgeted overtime in 2019-2020, has been one major reason for the city’s budget shortfall.

According to a report drafted by the police department, the drones will cost $50,000. OPD wants to buy one large drone “with strong cameras and flight range,” and four smaller drones. OPD is looking to buy its drones from DJI, a Chinese manufacturer that controls a large share of the global drone market. The department also has three helicopters it uses to watch over the city during protests, natural disasters, and to conduct vehicle pursuits, which often range over distances that drones can’t travel. OPD’s report doesn’t state whether they’re asking the City Council to pay for the drones with general-purpose funds, or with grant money as the privacy commission requested, or how much it will cost to train and operate drone pilots.

Bay Area police have stirred controversy by acquiring and using drones several times since 2012, the year the federal government encouraged local police to obtain and use unmanned surveillance aircraft. In 2014, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office was criticized for quietly purchasing several drones. The same year, the San Jose Police Department was criticized for purchasing a drone without first creating a use policy. Other Bay Area law enforcement agencies use drones routinely, including the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office. Some city police departments, like the San Pablo PD, have used drones to located homeless camps and conduct “outreach” during the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition to banning surveillance of people based on race, ethnicity, and other protected characteristics, OPD’s proposed use policy would ban officers from using drones for random surveillance missions. The aircraft would also not be allowed to carry weapons systems. And data from the drones would have to be stored on removable SD cards instead of being transmitted in a way that would allow a third party to possibly intercept it.

For years, the Oakland police have relied on the Alameda County Sheriff’s drone unit when they’ve wanted to use drones to chase down suspects or search for a missing person.

In August, ACSO’s drones were used to find a missing police dog that ran away after its handler, a San Leandro police officer, shot and killed a man in East Oakland. ACSO’s drones were also used several times this year to take crime scene photos and videos after fatal shootings.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.