By Doug Oakley
Inside Bay Area, December 16, 2012
BERKELEY — City leaders on Tuesday will consider a proposal to declare the air here a “No Drone Zone” to prevent law enforcement from using small unmanned aircraft to spy on residents.
The proposal by Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission comes a week after Alameda County Supervisors tabled a proposal by the Sheriff's Office to spend a $31,646 grant on a surveillance drone. The supervisors and the sheriff came under pressure by privacy advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"Drones can be equipped to conduct audio and visual surveillance and are small enough to end up outside your bedroom window," said Bob Meola, a Peace and Justice Commissioner who wrote the proposal about a year ago. "The larger ones can be equipped with rubber bullets and tear gas grenades and can be used as a weapon against our domestic population here at home."
Meola's proposal bans the purchase or use of drones, or unmanned aircraft systems as the FAA calls them, by any agency in Berkeley, including the police department. It also asks the city attorney to write a law declaring the airspace above Berkeley a "No Drone Zone" but makes an exception for hobbyists provided their drones do not have cameras or audio devices attached.
Drones are used by the Department of Homeland Security to watch over U.S. ports and international borders; the FBI uses them domestically and about a dozen police and sheriff's department's have them nationwide.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said that although one of his goals is to become more technologically savvy in crime fighting, he has not considered buying a drone.
"It's nothing we've ever looked at," Meehan said.
It's difficult to know exactly how many law enforcement agencies use them to watch people in American towns and cities. The FAA, which gives two-year certificates to fly drones weighing up to 25 pounds below 400 feet, only has numbers through mid 2011. From 2006 through the middle of 2011, there were 12 law enforcement agencies using them in Utah, Seattle, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Maryland, Alabama and Georgia. The FBI and the Department of Justice also use them but their locations are unknown.
This year, 7 percent of the applications to fly them nationwide came from law enforcement agencies, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. As of Aug. 1, the agency approved 345 applications from law enforcement, research institution and the Department of Defense.
Dorr said he had never heard of any city banning drones, but was unsure if any have.
When asked whether a city could ban the use of drones in its airspace, another FAA spokeswoman, Allison Duquette, initially said, "No. The city, county and state do not have legal jurisdiction above the surface," and said the responsibility to manage and regulate "falls solely to the FAA." But Duquette then changed her response to say the FAA "declines to comment pending action by a municipality." She did not return a phone call seeking clarification.
Meola said if his proposal ends up coming in conflict with federal regulations, he's willing to stick with the portion that simply bans the city from buying or using them.
"Even if they say they own the airspace and we can't do it, my position would be to have every city council from coast to coast pass resolutions opposing (drones) and put pressure on people in Washington to change federal laws," Meola said.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.