The Oakland Police Department's large DJI Matrice 300 drone on display at a press conference. Credit: Amir Aziz

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The Oakland Police Department announced today it has acquired three unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones or UAVs, to use in search-and-rescue missions and other special circumstances.

The drones, valued at $80,000, were given to OPD by local businessman David Duong, whose company, California Waste Solutions, is the city’s recycling contractor, and the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council, a newly established community benefits district serving Chinatown.

“These vehicles will be used to conduct searches and rescues, search for missing people,” said Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong at a press conference today. He said the drones will also be used for high-risk searches for individuals who are wanted by the police, people who have violent arrest warrants, and for barricaded armed suspects, and as a de-escalation tool.

OPD has never owned its own drones before. For years, the department has requested help from other agencies, especially the sheriff’s office, when it wanted to use a UAV.

Armstrong said OPD will adhere closely to a use policy that was approved by the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission in May and later adopted by the City Council.

While OPD will record footage from drone cameras, the video and other data will be kept for no more than five days, unless it’s used in a criminal or police misconduct investigation. The drones won’t use facial-recognition software or heat-sensing cameras. Armstrong said OPD might use them to observe the rowdy and sometimes violent car stunt-driving events known as sideshows, but that they won’t be used to generally patrol the city.

“They will not be used to cruise up and down Oakland,” the chief said.

Armstrong also said OPD won’t use the cameras to watch over protests, but added that this is something he thinks the city may want to “revisit at some point, if we feel like it’s the appropriate tool.” OPD would go back to the privacy commission to seek permission in that case. “We do like to have an aerial view when it comes to crowd management situations,” he said.

After attacks in Oakland Chinatown, a new group calls for increased police presence

Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council Interim President Stewart Chen said the drones can make all of Oakland safer. Credit: Amir Aziz

Stewart Chen, interim president of the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council, said the “catalyst” for his group’s grant allowing OPD to buy the UAVs was the increase in robberies in Chinatown during the pandemic, some of which were recorded on stationary surveillance cameras and shared on social media. 

The viral images of attacks on Asian and Latino seniors led some Chinatown leaders to call for more surveillance and police enforcement in their neighborhood, in addition to non-police efforts to improve safety. The Chinatown Improvement Council was born out of this effort, and it plans to take a leading role in advocating for more police resources across Oakland. “Hopefully this will keep Oakland safe, not just Chinatown,” said Chen.

Duong said he donated funds for the drones because he believes OPD is “short on funding.”

“I have friends who have gotten robbed in Chinatown,” Duong said.

The drone grant from the Chinatown group and Duong covers the cost of three drones. Armstrong said OPD will seek other grant funding to pay for parts and other maintenance costs, and that OPD might ask City Council to budget for operations and expansion of the drone unit at some future point in time. But he said OPD’s first goal is to demonstrate how the drones can be used in public safety operations.

Brian Hofer, chair of the Privacy Advisory Commission, a civilian watchdog group that advises the City Council on technology and civil liberties, told The Oaklandside that the commission and City Council barred OPD from obtaining drones with city funding because of the budget crisis that arose during the pandemic. 

The commission felt that allowing OPD to obtain and use its own drones through this third-party grant could ultimately improve privacy safeguards because OPD has been relying on the sheriff’s office, which has different policies from the city’s around what types of technology it deploys, how long it keeps data, and other sensitive matters.

OPD plans to assign 10 officers to the new drone unit as pilots and in other roles. Sgt. Michael Chung, who will lead the unit, said these officers will also continue their current assignments in patrol and other divisions, and won’t be taken off their existing jobs.

Also present at today’s press conference were District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao, who is running for mayor, and Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley, who is running for district attorney, and representatives of Councilmember Nikki Bas and County Supervisor Dave Brown.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. 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.