San Jose police’s surveillance drone has community concerned

 
Deputy Chief Dave Hober of the San Jose Police Department addresses the city’s neighborhood commission and fifty gathering community members about the SJPD’s ownership of an unnamed aerial system (UAS), commonly referred to as a surveillance drone, at City Hall on Nov. 12, 2014. Hober said while the drone was acquired in January and has not been used, a potential use could be providing the bomb unit a real-time view of a suspicious item from a distance. “It is much safe if bomb technicians can use a robot to approach the device, as it keeps the bomb technician further away,” Hober said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)

Deputy Chief Dave Hober of the San Jose Police Department addresses the city’s neighborhood commission and fifty gathering community members about the SJPD’s ownership of an unnamed aerial system (UAS), commonly referred to as a surveillance drone, at City Hall on Nov. 12, 2014. Hober said while the drone was acquired in January and has not been used, a potential use could be providing the bomb unit a real-time view of a suspicious item from a distance. “It is much safe if bomb technicians can use a robot to approach the device, as it keeps the bomb technician further away,” Hober said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)

San Jose police have apologized for not seeking community input before acquiring a drone in January.

After quietly purchasing what’s believed to be the first police drone in the Bay Area without seeking community input, Deputy Chief Dave Hober said the San Jose Police Department aimed to engage in a more transparent discussion about its new equipment at a neighborhood commission meeting at City Hall Wednesday.

Hober apologized to about 50 concerned community members about the lack of transparency. The purchase was an agenda item at a November City Council meeting but the police hadn’t sought public discussion.

Hober said the unmanned aerial system hadn’t been used since it was acquired in January and explained that its primary use wouldn’t be for surveillance but would “provide another tool for bomb technicians to utilize when dealing with suspicious items.”

The $6,965 drone weighs one-and-a-half pounds and measures three-feet wide and one-and-a-half feet tall. An attached GoPro camera provides downlinked video footage, and the drone has a limited flying time of approximately 15 to 20 minutes, controlled by manual radio controls, Hober said.

San Jose Police Department's drone. (Photo courtesy of San Jose Police Department via San Jose Mercury News)

San Jose Police Department’s drone. (Photo courtesy of San Jose Police Department via San Jose Mercury News)

Community members’ responses were mixed.

District 10 Commissioner Nick Labosky said that while he could see how helpful cameras may be to law enforcement, there has to be more transparency. “You have to do more than the outreach you’re describing, perhaps a demonstration out in the community.”

Sameena Usman from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, seemed concerned about drones being used for surveillance on specific groups within the community, citing a New York Police Department incident where Usman said the police was using remote-operated cameras for surveillance on the Muslim community.

“We just have to make sure that if indeed the drone is kept, we have these policies in place to ensure that it would not be used to single out particular communities,” she said.

Charlotte Casey from the San Jose Peace and Justice Center — a South Bay activist group concerned with peace and justice issues — handed a petition to Hober with more than 1,600 signatures insisting that the surveillance drone “be sent back.” Casey said owning a drone is a distancing technology in a society where the community hopes to build closer ties with the police.

“Police are there to protect and serve, not to spy on us,” she said.

The San Jose police department has planned another meeting for Dec. 6 to solicit more community input.

About fifty San Jose community members fill the neighborhood commission meeting at City Hall to hear the SJPD address their ownership of a surveillance drone on Nov. 12, 2014. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)

About fifty San Jose community members fill the neighborhood commission meeting at City Hall to hear the SJPD address their ownership of a surveillance drone on Nov. 12, 2014. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


Community voices from the meeting:


Nick Labosky from the San Jose District 10 Council provides input to the San Jose Police Department. Labosky himself installed a private security camera near his home after a rise of neighborhood home burglaries two years ago, which resulted in the prosecution of one burglar, he said. Labosky said that while he can see how cameras may be helpful to law enforcement, there has to be more transparency with the community. “You have to do more than the outreach you’re describing, perhaps a demonstration out in the community.” (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


Dan Keller from the San Jose District 9 Council provides input to the San Jose Police Department. Keller feels the public should have a record of when and where the drone is used. “There might be considerations for making that video public and accessible to the community,” Keller said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


Bob Sippel, a member of the community advisory board for San Jose police, addresses the SJPD in saying he has done a lot of research regarding police usage of surveillance drones. Sippel said he believes a great number of drones crashing occur in learning how to fly them, which may pose danger to a large crowd. “We also have to think of our police officers as human beings, and if it can save their lives and others too, it’s a great thing,” Sippel said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


San Jose community member Martha Rodriguez addresses the SJPD by asking how many drones the police plans on having in the future. “We can’t give real input until we have an understanding of how this equipment will be used,” Rodriguez said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


Sameena Usman from the Council on American-Islamic relations addresses the San Jose Police Department. Usman seemed concerned about drones being used for surveillance on specific groups within the community, citing a New York Police Department incident where Usman said the police was using remote-operated cameras for surveillance on the Muslim community. “We just have to make sure that if indeed the drone is kept, we have these policies in place to ensure that it would not be used to single out particular communities,” she said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


Charlotte Casey from the San Jose Peace and Justice Center addresses the San Jose Police Department. “We feel very strongly that we should not be the first community in Northern California to have a drone, and we have gathered over 1,600 signatures on a petition that says we should send the drone back,” Casey said. (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)


San Jose native Joycee Benavides addresses the San Jose Police Department. Benavides said she recently saw a drone almost crash into the windshield of a VTA bus, also almost knocking down a bike rider, at the intersection on Fourth Street. “When you have something flying or buzzing around your ear or your face—even animals do this—it’s just natural to swat at it,” Benavides said. “That’s exactly what’s going to happen; I guarantee it.” (Carolina Wilson/Peninsula Press)