Private donation enables Oakland police drone deployment


The Police Department in Oakland, California, is finally equipped with a trio of UAVs in its new drone unit, but public concerns, political opposition, earlier controversies, and an enduring budget crisis required 100% private funding before that program could get off the ground.

Oakland police received their nascent fleet of three DJI drones after a local business owner ponied up $80,000 in to purchase the UAVs. California Waste Solutions recycling owner David Duong was backed by the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council in extending the money, which financed two burly Matrice 300 drones and a smaller Mavic 3 Enterprise. The department had put in requests to procure the vehicles for use in its enforcement and community protect work for years, but a blend of concerns – and a severe budget crisis – had kept the effort from getting clearance. 

Oakland’s police drones each sport a thermal camera, spotlight, and public address speaker for deployment in specific circumstances. By contrast, they won’t carry facial-recognition tech, nor use artificial intelligence applications. Video footage taken by the UAVs’ cameras and other data collected won’t be kept for more than five days, unless the information is part of ongoing criminal or police misconduct inquiries. 

The repeated motions by Oakland police to buy and operate drones in its activities had faced the same kind of resistance – and required an explicit set of operating rules be approved – that had until recently thwarted cops in Phoenix from obtaining the craft. Underlying concerns were primarily about privacy protection in both cities. 

But with Oakland arguably even more progressive than its San Francisco neighbor – and residents even more distrustful of police forces – the city council’s previous rejections had been fortified by serious political resistance. Making matters worse, discovery of shadowy procurement and operation activities by law enforcement departments elsewhere in the Bay Area had sparked controversy, and hardened positions in Oakland.

Meanwhile, a recent series of budget crises considered the worst in municipal history ­­– resulting in a $62 million deficit at the end of fiscal year 2021 alone – made a thumbs-down vote on UAV financing an even easier decision. That denial had led Oakland police to borrow drones from other law enforcement organizations when needed. 

With the required funding having been provided by Duong and crime-rattled Chinatown supporters, however, the money argument was all but gutted. Meantime, an earlier police impact report and policy guidelines on drone use had been approved by Oakland city commissioners on the condition no public funds be spent for that – leaving opponents with reduced ground to battle on. 

“I spoke very clearly that we need help from the community to address crime, that the police department couldn’t do it alone, and today, our community has stepped up for us,” said Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong in unveiling the department’s donated drones this week. “This is a tool that we for many years have had to call on other police departments for support, asking them to bring forth their equipment to support our efforts. Now we have our own in-house equipment.”

In addition to the restrictions mentioned above, Oakland police will be banned from using the craft to monitor people “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.” 

Indeed, while critics of drone use by Oakland police aren’t happy with the development, they say their earlier tough stand that resulted in those strict drone guidelines leaves city residents more protected than people where UAV deployments were launched with little debate. It also ends, they add, the lack of transparency and accountability involved in Oakland’s cops operating drones borrowed from other departments.

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