Sheriff drone program takes off

08/08/2018

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office is in the midst of acquiring five drones, part of a program exposed at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting when a Sausalito man called on the county to hold off on the acquisition until rules are put in place to protect the public from surveillance. 

The Sheriff’s Office approved a policy in June that authorizes the use of the aerial systems in post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation; explosive ordnance disposal and hazardous spill response; search and rescue, public safety, life preservation and training missions; disaster response and recovery; fire response and prevention; and pursuant to a search warrant or consent. 

According to Lieutenant Jeff Edwards, the five drones will arrive in the next 60 to 90 days. But until the devices arrive, the greatest challenge facing the department may be public perception of the program, which was leaked by Frank Shinneman, a Sausalito resident concerned about privacy implications. 

“The Sheriff’s policy does not provide protection against public surveillance, it does not contain reporting on use, nor does it limit the sharing of the video surveillance with other authorities” such as the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Mr. Shinneman said at the July 10 supervisors’ hearing. 

He asked supervisors to “halt any further drone acquisition plans until there is a public forum justifying the need and a limited use policy that provides protections from these surveillance systems.” 

Yet the Sheriff’s Office insists that the drone policy approved in June is sufficient. The policy states that “when the [drone] is being flown, operators will focus on the areas necessary to the mission and minimize the inadvertent collection of data about uninvolved persons or
places.” 

All recorded data will be uploaded to an online database accessible only to the Sheriff’s Office and shared only in the case of prosecution by the District Attorney’s office. 

“Even deputies can only see the videos that they are involved with,” Lt. Edwards said. “We don’t allow any outside access at this point.” 

But according to Lieutenant Jim Hickey, although drones will not be used for large-scale surveillance of the public, “surveillance is a broad term. I guess looking for a bad guy in the woods could be considered surveillance. But what are people really asking? Are we planning to surveil properties to check if they’re doing anything illegal? No.” 

The Sheriff’s Office has emphasized drones’ search and rescue advantages, especially in areas of difficult terrain, such as along the rugged coastline. “Rather than having to put a search-and-rescue member over a cliff in West Marin to see if someone has fallen, we can use a drone,” Undersheriff Michael Ridgway explained. 

Cost is another benefit of drones when compared to helicopters, which can cost upwards of $3,000,000, with an annual $1,000,000 for gas and maintenance. The drones purchased by the Sheriff’s Office cost $2,700 each.

Six pilots, who have already completed the Federal Aviation Administration’s required operational training, will likely be stationed near headquarters in San Rafael, but Lt. Edwards emphasized their ability to quickly respond to emergencies on the coast. “Even if they’re not stationed out here specifically, the idea is that any [drone] within a close proximity could be anywhere in the county within 30 minutes or less.”

Drones are not new to Marin rescue efforts, either. The Marin County Fire Department has used two for the last couple of years; these are available for deployment at the request of an incident commander. 

Unlike the Sheriff’s policy, footage obtained through the fire department’s drones is kept for seven years in alignment with the county records management system, and is available through a public record’s request. 

Fire department policy also specifies that drones shall at no time be “loaned out” to any other agency, although the department often collaborates with the Sheriff’s Office in search-and-rescue
operations.