english

The VICE Channels

    Despite Repeated Denials, San Jose Police Definitely Have a Drone

    Written by

    Shawn Musgrave

    Contributor

    This story has been updated with further comment from the San Jose Police Dept. 

    After repeatedly claiming it had no records about its drone program, the San Jose Police Department has confirmed that it does indeed have a drone—it just hasn't flown yet.

    Two weeks ago, we reviewed the San Jose Police Department’s puzzling inability to locate any documents regarding its purchase of a small drone with federal grants. With some additional prodding, the SJPD has at last tracked down its drone receipts and grant application.

    The documents indicate that the SJPD's bomb squad took possession of its Century hexacopter drone in January 2014 for just under $7,000, but has yet to fly the unit in operations, train any officers on its deployment, or apply for federal authority to do so.

    "The future need for a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] in the southern Bay Area is upon us," wrote Sergeant Douglas Wedge of the SJPD Bomb Squad in his grant application for federal homeland security funds more than a year ago.

    Sergeant Wedge asserted that a drone offered an array of capabilities for inspecting suspicious packages on the cheap.

    “The cost of these UAV’s is 95% less that [sic] trying to purchase a new smaller bomb robot,” Wedge wrote. “The parts for this UAV are available over the counter and our [sic] not specialty items if something were to break.”

    The Department of Homeland Security awards millions of dollars in grants each year for law enforcement, emergency response, and critical infrastructure security in major metropolitan areas. For fiscal year 2013, the San Jose Police Department received more than $400,000 for a wide range of projects, which makes the department's UAV purchase just a small fraction of its total award.

    Invoices and requisition orders signed in December 2013 indicate that the total came to $6,965.08 for SJPD’s drone. The bill included more than $1,000 for 15 hours of labor to assemble the Hexacopter kit, which includes a GoPro video camera, live video transmitter, and autopilot capabilities.

    Image: Heli-World Inc.

    Per a description on the vendor’s website, the six-rotor Century NEO 660 V2 is perfect for anyone “looking for a solid multi-rotor for aerial photography, search and rescue operations, law enforcement agencies, and other activities where a flying drone is needed.”

    Sergeant Wedge picked up the 1.5 pound hexacopter from San Jose’s Helicopter World Inc. on January 28, 2014. The handoff marked a critical milestone in a process set in motion more than a year earlier.

    While the grant application released to MuckRock is undated, Bay Area UASI guidelines make clear that the final deadline for SJPD to submit its drone proposal for fiscal year 2013 was November 30, 2012 at 5 PM.

    And yet, in response to two record requests submitted as part of the Drone Census in December 2012 and October 2013, San Jose police insisted they had no documents to provide.

    On December 17, 2012, an analyst within the SJPD Research and Development Unit specifically responded that the department had no records regarding research into drones or plans to use unmanned aerial vehicles.

    In October 2013, SJPD swatted away a second request for records.

    “Our Department does not use aerial drones, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), unmanned aerials (UAs), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and/or unmanned aerial systems (UASs), nor does our Fiscal Unit have any records related to these items,” wrote Monique Villarreal, an R&D analyst in the SJPD chief’s office, on October 16, 2013.

    The department finally released documents in response to a third request submitted in July 2014, after a policy fellow at the ACLU of Northern California unearthed a handful of San Jose City Council documents from November 2013 authorizing the allocation of grant funds.

    Beyond outlining the unit’s specs, newly released documents also clarify the SJPD’s aspirations for its small UAV.

    "This UAV given its size and nature is primarily an intelligence gathering resource,” reads a May 2014 submission to the California emergency management agency. “This craft is outfitted with a camera that enables the operator to quickly assess an area or a suspicious object and relay that information to the operator in real time."

    Grant materials suggest that several agencies will share the drone, including all thirteen bomb squads in the Bay Area and fire departments.

    "This UAV will enable public safety bomb squads throughout the Bay Area to conduct quick and accurate threat assessments, and will help bomb squads clear a suspected hazardous area of explosives or hazardous materials in a remote, safe, timely, and effective manner,” reads the same May 2014 program description.

    Notably missing are any applications for flight authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages national airspace and drone flight certification for governmental and commercial applications. While the FAA certification process imposes a battery of training requirements for pilots and largely limits drone flights to unpopulated areas, SJPD materials make no mention of these obstacles to operational deployment.

    The May 2014 memo claims, that there is “virtually no down time in training to fly this UAV as it has multiple presets which are programmed into the hard drive." The SJPD response indicates that the department has not conducted any trainings on operating the hexacopter, although the grant indicates that a minimum of 12 personnel are to be trained on its use.

    Some documents specify indoor sites such as stairways and hallways as ideal targets for UAV deployment, but Sergeant Wedge sold the idea in more universal terms that may interest the FAA.

    "This UAV is truly regional in nature as it could be deployed at any venue in the Bay Area when needed," he wrote in May 2014.

    In a letter that accompanied the document release, SPJD Chief Larry Esquivel indicated that “the program relating to drones has not yet been implemented,” and that the department has yet to develop any policy on drone deployments. 

    Update—August 3, 5pm EST: SJPD Public Information Officer Albert Morales confirmed by email that the department has yet to apply for FAA authorization to operate its hexacopter six months after purchase, but will do so "after we are done with research into what is required" to apply.

    Similarly, the SJPD affirmed that administrators have not developed policies regarding the unit's deployment since they are "still conducting research and developing policies as to when it would be deployed," nor have they trained any officers to operate it since they are "still researching what training is actually required by the FAA."

    Connect To Motherboard

    Most Popular

    Comments
    comments powered by Disqus