SEATTLE — Saying police need to stay focused on “community building,” Mayor Mike McGinn has pulled the plug on the department’s controversial drone program even before it got off the ground.
In a brief statement Thursday, McGinn said he and police Chief John Diaz agreed that it was time to end the program so the Seattle Police Department “can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority.”
McGinn said the two drones purchased by the city with federal funds will be returned to their vendor.
When reached for comment, Seattle police referred questions to the mayor’s office. The mayor’s office declined to elaborate on McGinn’s statement.
The announcement came one day after the city held a public hearing on a proposed ordinance outlining restrictions for the department’s drone program, which drew vocal opposition from numerous citizens concerned with intrusions into their privacy. The ordinance was expected to come up for a vote later this month.
The Police Department is among dozens of law-enforcement agencies, academic institutions and other agencies that were given approval last year by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to train operators in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones. The FAA action came after President Obama signed a law that compelled the agency to plan for safe integration of civilian drones into U.S. airspace by 2015.
The Police Department purchased two 3.5-pound Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech drones with money from a regional Homeland Security grant, envisioning uses during hostage situations and search-and-rescue operations and after following natural disasters. One of the helicopters was expected to be used by the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Police said the unmanned systems would allow the city to have some of the public-safety benefits of a manned helicopter without the prohibitive costs.
But the proposed use of drones by police drew “tremendous, widespread concern among the general public,” according to Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington. When police introduced the program during a public presentation last fall, officers were shouted down by opponents who feared misuse.
Honig said Thursday the ACLU was pleased with McGinn’s action.
“It’s a wise decision,” he said. “Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.”
But Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, criticized McGinn for taking “the easy way out.”
“It’s harder to define a policy where, in rare circumstances, (drones) could be useful,” said Harrell, who is running for mayor against McGinn. “We could have been a model for other cities to follow.”
Harrell had sponsored the pending council legislation that he hoped would balance the usefulness of the technology with privacy concerns.
The proposed ordinance discussed Wednesday would have banned the use of drones for general surveillance or for flights over open-air assemblies. It also would have required police to obtain a warrant before using drones for all but emergency circumstances, such as situations involving hostages, search-and-rescue operations, the pursuit of armed felons, bomb threats and the detection of “hot spots” in fires, or for the collection of traffic data.
City Councilmember Tim Burgess, another mayoral candidate, said McGinn’s cancellation of the program provides the city with an opportunity to reassess the grant money given to the city for homeland security.
But he went further, questioning the Police Department’s recent installation of 30 surveillance cameras along the city’s shoreline, from Fauntleroy to Golden Gardens. The project is funded by a $5 million federal grant aimed at increasing security at the Port of Seattle and improving the city’s ability to respond to hazards and emergencies.
Police said the cameras, which could be operational by March 31, will provide them with a sweeping view of the port facilities, Elliott Bay and the shoreline.
“We should also assess the cameras at Alki,” Burgess said. “Unfortunately, there has not been the strong, decisive leadership from the mayor on public safety so these things just occur without the kind of oversight and policy discussions we should be having.”
McGinn’s mention of “community building” comes amid police community-outreach efforts following a Department of Justice investigation that found evidence of biased policing and routine use of unconstitutional force. That finding led to an agreement calling for mandated reforms within the department.
The debate in Seattle over drones echoes one taking place across the nation as law-enforcement agencies seek to utilize drone technology. Earlier this week, Charlottesville, Va., ordered a two-year moratorium on the citywide use of unmanned aircraft. It was the first city in the nation to do so, supporters say.
Honig, the ACLU spokesman, said the organization would like to see legislation placing restrictions on the acquisition and use of drones by all Washington state law-enforcement agencies. He also said the acquisition of such technology should be driven by policies and decisions made with public input, not simply by the availability of federal funds.
When King County Sheriff John Urquhart took office last year, he said he returned his department’s drone to Seattle police.
“I came in and said, ‘We’re not going to fly that.’ We hadn’t done our homework, and I don’t think the time is right,” he said Thursday. “What’s happening to Seattle is exactly what I hoped to avoid.”
Staff reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.