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L.A. Sheriff's Department Super Excited About Their First Drone

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Big Brother is coming to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, sort of. The agency announced Thursday that they'd be implementing their first-ever unmanned drone to assist deputies, particularly in responding to hostage situations and bomb threats.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell noted in a press release that the FAA's approval enables drone usage for search and rescue, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires, hostage rescue, and barricaded, armed suspects.

Sheriff McDonnell told the L.A. Times that the drone will help his officers view situations from previously unattainable angles. He noted examples like searching for a missing person in a canyon pass, or keeping an eye on a barricaded suspect in a hostage situation.

“The dangers of law enforcement can never be eliminated,” County Sheriff McDonnell continued at the press conference. “However, this technology can assist us in reducing the impact of risks on personnel and allow us to perform operations to enhance public safety.”

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The Special Operations Bureau has trained eight officers to operate the drone, which can stay airborne for 20 minutes and has a range of up to one mile from the officer controlling it. “It will provide a clearer view, and different angles that you would not get using a robot," Captain Jack Ewell told KPCC.

Statewide, 30 law enforcement agencies use aerial drones. Nationwide, the FAA has approved over 300 departments' requests. But not everyone is comfortable with police drone usage... In May 2014, the Seattle Police Department gifted two drones to the Los Angeles Police Department after Seattleites and various state watchdog groups cried foul.

In November 2015, Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! Campaign, an anti-surveillance group, sent a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti warning about the dangers of using drones for police work.

"People all over United States have expressed shock and anger over the rampant militarization of law enforcement and demanded an end to military style tactics and weaponry," the letter states. "The impact has been devastating on communities across the country. ...This year Los Angeles leads the nations with 19 murders committed by LAPD officers. 4 Yet under your leadership LAPD has become more militarized and greatly expanded its architecture of surveillance, spying, and infiltration."

The letter continued to describe "mission creep," in which the usage of a tactic or device expands beyond its stated purpose, and asked Garcetti to support a ban on police drone usage. "Drone surveillance equipment in the hands of LAPD will continue to unjustly profile the people of Los Angeles, create a culture of fear and suspicion, invade our privacy, and criminalize innocent behavior," the letter adds. "The use of drone technology further militarizes law enforcement tactics, linking local law enforcement to garrison style military rule."

But the Sheriff's Department vows that its new drones will not be used for "random" surveillance. “The sheriff department policy is this device shall not be used for any type of random surveillance,” Capt. Ewell told KPCC.

Sheriff McDonnell added, “We are continuing to raise the bar as a leader in law enforcement and always looking for ways to do the job better.”