The machine hovered above us, at the edge of a cloud of yellow smoke billowing into the sky from a mock hazardous-waste spill. A member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Bomb Squad stood next to me, watching the scene from a protected space behind a concrete wall. If you don't know what's in the smoke, his colleague had explained to me earlier, then you don't necessarily want to approach with a human-response team. Instead, scenarios like this are perfect for a drone. The aircraft's four rotors suddenly whirred as it banked to the right to give its remote operator a better view. The ominously colored smoke was now spreading.
The morning was overcast, marked by moments of light rain. I had been invited to watch a test run of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's recent acquisition, a quadcopter drone that had been in service for a little more than a year. With its own custom-painted body shell, emblazoned with the single word, RESCUE, in red block caps, the drone looked sleek—cute, even. The Sheriff's Department made the choice deliberately, to give the potentially threatening technology a Pixar-like approachability.
At a time when police SWAT teams have become known for training videos soundtracked by death metal, seeing an aircraft such as this buzzing outside your apartment window might not immediately inspire dread. Somewhere between fight and flight, I realized, there was an altogether different sort of reaction: As soon as I saw this charismatic machine being prepped for takeoff, I took out my phone and snapped a picture. The choice of the word RESCUE was, of course, no accident: It simply compounded the sheriffs' intended message that this is a tool that comes in peace.
My guide for the day would be Commander Jack Ewell from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's Special Operations Division. Ewell's short-cropped, graying hair and upright physical bearing gave him a military air. Before the morning's training simulation kicked off, Ewell and I spoke at length about the department's drone program—although Ewell was careful not to use the word drone. It is an Unmanned Aerial System, he insisted, or U.A.S. Even to refer to its occasional deployment as a regular program would be a journalistic overstatement, he cautioned.
The department has—for now—exactly one drone. Over the course of approximately a million service calls in 2017, Ewell said, the department used that drone six times. And out of nearly 10,000 sworn deputies, the largest sheriff's department in the United States, a mere eight officers are drone pilots licensed by the Federal Aviation Adminisrtation.
The L.A. County Sheriff's drone has the word RESCUE clearly emblazoned on its custom-painted shell. (Angie Smith)
As we spoke, Ewell explained how limited the sheriffs' use of the UAS really was, perhaps nervous that I would overstate the machine's intended deployment. "Our policy is very strict on when it can be used," he said. "It's strictly a safety device—it's a camera in a safe position where a person doesn't have to be." He proceeded to list the potential scenarios for which the drone has, so far, been authorized: "Search and rescue, explosive-ordnance detection missions, armed barricaded suspects, hostage situations, active shooters, hazardous material incidents, and other high-risk tactical operations."
The police currently have no plans to expand this list, he added, or to give in to so-called mission creep, allowing the machine to be deployed for more ethically dubious, or constitutionally questionable, purposes. The warrantless aerial tracking of suspects across the county? Not gonna happen. Arming drones with tasers or shotguns? Give me a break. For now, he alleged, the sheriff's department does not even record real-time video footage generated by the aircraft; that footage is simply watched live on a remote monitor before being lost to digital history.
As the department's L.A. training yard cleared of smoke, our simulated hazardous-waste spill now fully contained, a chemical smell lingered, reminding me of Fourth of July fireworks. The drone's value as a winged camera had been, it seemed, adequately demonstrated. Over the course of several minutes, it had swooped down and around a now-depleted smoke grenade, giving Ewell's human first-response team, who had been watching the aircraft's video feed, a better sense of what it might be going up against. With the drone, Ewell explained to me, "we can get into places a human can't get into. We can drive up into a safe area and launch the UAS into an unsafe area."
It is an example of police telepresence—a kind of investigatory action-at-a-distance—in which figures of human authority can attend events where actual bodies might be at risk. This might involve diagnosing a mysterious plume of colored smoke, or it might mean flying to within several feet of an armed suspect under barricade.
Indeed, when I spoke with Ewell, that was the exact scenario in which the sheriffs' RESCUE drone had last been deployed. In March, in the city of Pomona, in eastern L.A. County, an armed motorist allegedly battling depression fled the scene of a car accident and locked himself inside a nearby apartment complex. During a confrontation with police, the man fatally shot a 30-year-old police officer and father of two named Gregory Casillas. The sheriff department's drone was used to inspect the apartment complex from above; in the process, its clear aerial views into the building allowed law enforcement to see what sorts of materials the man had used in his barricade and how the sheriffs themselves might respond most effectively. Although the standoff would eventually grind its way through another 15 tension-filled hours, the body count never rose.
Without the UAS that night, Ewell said, the department might have been forced to send live SWAT-team officers into harm's way. Had they done so, who knows how much worse a tragedy it could have been? "Technology," he said, sounding wistful, "is just a lifesaver in law-enforcement work."
Drones are all the rage today, in everything from experimental street graffiti to wildlife photography. They appeal as much to suburban hobbyists as to NASA engineer. In fact, drones will soon be interplanetary: NASA recently announced a plan to send semiautonomous robot helicopters to Mars. This does not mean, of course, that drone use by the nation's law-enforcement organizations has been greeted with public enthusiasm. Far from it.
At the end of May 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department—a law enforcement organization entirely separate from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department—received two quadcopter drones as a "gift" from the Seattle Police Department. The only reason the LAPD obtained the drones in the first place, however, was that the Seattle PD had found the machines' use to be politically untenable: Seattleites were clearly and vocally opposed to their implementation. In the end, Seattle police were relieved to get rid of them: "SPD UAVs Leave Seattle to Try to Make It in Hollywood," read a sarcastic blog post on the Seattle P.D.'s own website. The arrival of the drones in L.A. County was no less controversial, immediately triggering a public outcry, particularly from an activist group calling itself the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. Only last October did the LAPD announce that it would begin a limited, experimental deployment of the drones in very specific situations, starting in January, nearly four years after having received them. The department's drone-use guidelines also include an explicit "prohibition on the weaponization of the devices."
Sean Whitcomb, a public-affairs officer with the Seattle Police Department, admitted to discomfort when he walked me through his department's tangled history with remotely piloted aircraft. (The LAPD declined multiple requests for comment.) For Whitcomb, public resistance to police drone use seems perfectly reasonable—after all, not many people want police cameras tracking them from above or filming the interiors of their home. Yet it is also, in its own way, inconsistent. The Seattle PD already has a remotely controlled ground robot, Whitcomb mentioned, and that robot is also mounted with a camera. It just doesn't fly. Speaking of flight, both the Seattle PD and the LAPD also already have active helicopter divisions; those helicopters are mounted with advanced optical technologies, including forward-looking infrared and massively incandescent tracking lights known as "Nightsuns."
Reserved parking at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department training facility in East Los Angeles. (Angie Smith)
Public unease with law-enforcement drone cameras also arrives, ironically, at the same time as "overwhelming support" for the widespread use of police body cameras. This discrepancy raises the question of who—or what—can film a city's residents and under what investigative circumstances. As National Review has pointed out, for example, effective controls on police drone technology must include "limiting the scope of police surveillance, the means of police surveillance, the content police may store, and the length of time for which they may store it. Such limits prevent abuse and preserve liberty." If bodycams promise that a police officer's account of an event can now be compared to video footage of what happened, why is future drone footage not greeted with the same evidentiary enthusiasm?
For Ewell, the answer is at least partially semantic: When people hear the word drone, he suggested to me, the conversation is basically over before it's begun. They picture armed Predator airplanes shooting missiles from the sky. Yet Ewell's alternative phrasing—"UAS"—is both awkward and overly technical, acting as a barrier for broader public acceptance. And so the devices appeal to no one, a small quadcopter drone used for search-and-rescue operations (including locating stranded hikers) having been fused in the public eye with aerial weaponry used to take out terrorist training camps.
For Grégoire Chamayou, a theorist and critic of the tools of remote warfare, widespread drone use heralds the rise of what he calls the "hunter-state," an Orwellian political condition in which everyday life is always under scrutiny from afar by "the apostles of remote control." Referring to pervasive surveillance programs such as Gorgon Stare, a U.S. military initiative that seeks to record every event in a targeted landscape using semiautonomous aerial-camera systems, Chamayou suggests that drones will facilitate a vast police archive of everyday life—an infinite record of everything that occurs in a city, including the minutest detail of a suspect's daily activities. Chamayou does not portray this as a revolution in evidentiary case management—as the birth of a searchable public video record of urban police activity—but as a kind of a malevolent detective novel written by the police, in which law-abiding citizens have been recast as unwitting antagonists.
This sort of dystopian scenario doesn't sit well with Ewell, however, who reminded me that footage generated by the sheriff's drone is not even recorded, let alone saved for months or years at a time. In fact, he emphasized, because nothing is currently recorded, "none of it is prosecution or crime-scene related." The L.A. County Sheriff's Department drone thus plays no evidentiary role in documenting police investigations, hazardous spills, or criminal behavior. "But that's just us," Ewell added. "You can let your imagination go on different things that a particular agency could use these devices for."
Another way of looking at this is that, for now, mission creep is more of a risk than the actual mission. Misuse is often more interesting for critics than a system operating as it should be, but even so, if remotely controlled aerial vehicles become an everyday part of police tactical gear, then opportunities for misuse will become more common.
I told Sean Whitcomb of the Seattle PD that a neighbor of mine in L.A. has taken to flying a personal drone around, even sometimes hovering it over the houses on my street, apparently filming things. Perhaps an amateur drone video thus exists of me sitting in my backyard, typing this very article. Whitcomb pointed out that the rise of hobbyist drones arguably presents a larger legal headache for everyday citizens than police use does. There are clearly established legal means for contesting police activities, he suggested, including regular sheriff elections and public oversight over the police department itself. Preventing a camera-happy neighbor from snapping low-angle aerial photos of your home, by contrast, is not so cut and dried.
But, Whitcomb said, in Seattle, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, from Connecticut and Nebraska to the United Kingdom, the public has spoken. The LAPD is simply taking baby steps toward deploying their own machines under limited circumstances, and Seattle has no plans for resurrecting the prospect of police drone use. When I asked whether that was a permanent internal ban on using the machines, Whitcomb hesitated. "Who knows what the distant future will hold?" he finally said.
As the L.A. County Sheriff's drone demonstration came to an end, the UAS still had some battery life to kill. When I looked up to find it in the sky, however, I realized that it was too far away to hear, its whirring blades drowned out by nearby road noise, and, because of some large trees lining the horizon, I could no longer see it. It was, for all intents and purposes, invisible. But the pilot knew exactly where it was: He sent it buzzing back into view from behind the treetops, dozens of feet from where I'd expected it to be. It zipped toward the center of a helicopter landing pad, awaiting its next electrical charge and a future mission.