Chicago Police secretly bought drones with off-the-books cash

A report from the Chicago Sun-Times is raising eyebrows. The newspaper has uncovered that the Chicago Police Department has bought drones using funds acquired through the seizure of property and cash.

Plenty of police departments in the world are using drones. They’re incredibly useful tools that can be used for situational awareness, accident and crime scene documentation, Search & Rescue, and more. Except usually, it’s a very public process: Police departments often meet with a public board to discuss budgets and expenditures, and often, the police are quite happy to spread the word to the public about their adoption of this new technology.

According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, that’s not what happened in this case.


That’s how the newspaper describes what transpired: “The Chicago Police Department started a secretive drone program using off-budget cash to pay for the new technology, the Sun-Times has learned.”

When something is paid for from the budget, it’s a public document with expenditures all laid out clearly for anyone with an interest to see. That’s definitely not what happened in this case.

1505 funds

The above refers to a pile of money and other assets seized by police as they carry out their work. There’s a pretty significant chunk of dough in that 1505 bucket, and where that money goes does not wind up in the official budget.

The Chicago Sun-Times wound up with access to an email sent last summer by the department’s director of police research and development. The email laid out to other senior police officials that the department’s counter-terrorism bureau “utilized 1505 funds for a pilot Drone program that operates within the parameters of current laws.”

How much of those funds were used and what was purchased with them isn’t really the point here. Generally, acquisitions like this – and particularly acquisitions where the public might have some questions about their use and privacy issues – are, at minimum, disclosed in the budget, if not the subject of an open hearing where those concerns might be raised. That didn’t happen here.

Under the table

What the Sun-Times describes is very much an under-the-table kind of transaction, known only to a few insiders. Previously, the Sun-Times says that 1505 funds have reportedly been used to purchase controversial technology like Stingrays, which fool cellphones into revealing their location.

That’s certainly the kind of technology that has the potential for abuse, as are drones. While UAVs are undoubtedly great for many kinds of police work, they could also be abused. And the danger of such abuse, arguably, increases if the public is not aware the new tool has even been deployed.

You could imagine, for example, a drone being used to monitor a parade or demonstration. With a good lens and the right software, it could arguably be employing facial recognition software without participants being aware.

Above board?

While the purchase was carried out without public knowledge, it’s worth noting that the leaked email does state (as noted above) that the drones will be used “within the parameters of current laws.” The email, it’s worth pointing out, originally came to light via the website Distributed Denial of Secrets, which some regard as similar to WikiLeaks.

When the Sun-Times started asking questions, the Chicago Police Department responded with this:

The Department considers every tool available when it comes to maintaining public safety and actively searches for innovative opportunities. CPD has strict guidelines for all tools and programs to ensure individual privacy, civil rights, civil liberties and other interests are protected. We also meet with community partners to make certain that all enforcement efforts meet the highest standards and have support among the individuals Chicago police officers are sworn to serve and protect.

What that response doesn’t answer…is why this purchase was carried out beyond public scrutiny.

Those 1505 funds

Well, it’s a significant stash of cash. Over the last two years, says the Sun-Times, the Chicago Police Department has taken in seized or forfeited assets worth some $25.9 million. The Sun-Times further reports that at least $7.7 million was spent during that same period of time. Here’s what the paper says the money went towards:

…roughly $7.7 million was spent over that period on operating expenses, witness protection, informant fees and controlled drug buys, as well as travel, meals, conferences, training and continuing education. The spending isn’t itemized, but the reports state that operating expenses can cover vehicles, guns and equipment, such as drones.

Civil Liberties?

Not surprisingly, news of the drone program has raised a few eyebrows. The American Civil Liberties Union is among those critical of doing things in this less-than-transparent way. A spokesperson for the Illinois ACLU told the paper the leaked emails show the city “continues to pursue the invasive technologies without any public disclosure, oversight or publicly adopted privacy policies.”

Ed Yohnka continued:

We should not be surprised. This behavior goes back more than two decades when Chicago first began to place surveillance cameras all across the city. To this day, residents of the city have never seen a privacy policy for the use of those cameras.

If you’d like to see the full story, including the leaked email, you’ll find it right here.

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