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February 7, 2013 at 3:52 PM

McGinn ends Seattle police drone program

Mayor Mike McGinn today announced he is permanently grounding the Seattle Police Department’s proposed aerial drone program.

“Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority. The vehicles will be returned to the vendor,” McGinn said in a statement.

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 use 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 American airspace by 2015.

The Police Department purchased two 3.5-pound Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech drones with money from a regional Urban Area Security Initiative grant.

Police Department officials said their plans for the drones included providing camera images in homicide and traffic investigations; search-and-rescue operations; and cases involving hazardous materials, barricaded people and natural disasters. The FAA specifically prohibits civilian drones from carrying weapons systems.

But during a community meeting last fall and a public hearing on Wednesday night, opponents voiced strong opposition to the program, citing privacy concerns. Opponents included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington.

“We’re pleased with the mayor’s action. It’s a wise decision,” Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU, said this afternoon. “Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy.”

Going forward, Honig said the ACLU of Washington still hopes to see legislation placing restrictions on the acquisition and use of drones by law enforcement statewide.

McGinn’s decision to end the program comes as the city was developing a proposed ordinance to govern the use of the aircraft.

The ordinance 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 “exigent” or 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.

Earlier this week, Charlottesville, Va., ordered a two-year moratorium on the citywide use of unmanned aircraft. It is the first city in the nation to do so, supporters say.

Seattle recently installed 30 security cameras along the city’s shoreline, from Fauntleroy to Golden Gardens, under a $5 million federal grant aimed at increasing the Port of Seattle and the city’s ability to respond to hazards and emergencies. The cameras, which could be operational by March 31, will provide police with a sweeping view of the port facilities, Elliott Bay and the shoreline.

Comments | Topics: Mike McGinn, Seattle Police Department, spy drones

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