Yesterday, police in San Jose issued a statement apologizing for failing to consult the public ahead of acquiring an unmanned aerial vehicle. Hours later, the department released additional documents showing the department considered itself immune from FAA regulation.
San Jose Police Department posted its statement yesterday morning, three weeks after a Motherboard-MuckRock report first highlighted that the department had received nearly $7,000 in federal homeland security funds to purchase a unit.
While the SJPD records staff twice denied having any documents on drones even as its bomb squad worked through the year-long application process, last week the department released its grant application materials and documents confirming it acquired a six-rotor Century Neo 660 in January 2014.
While grant materials pitch the SJPD drone as a bomb squad tool to inspect suspicious packages from a distance, the posted statement outlines additional potential uses, which “could include dangers such as active shooters, hostage taking, or other such tactical situations where lives might be in immediate danger.”
The SJPD statement apologized for lack of transparency around the purchase, and committed to consulting the public before deploying the drone or applying for federal licenses to fly:
In hindsight, SJPD should have done a better job of communicating the purpose and acquisition of the UAS device to our community.The community should have the opportunity to provide feedback, ask questions, and express their concerns before we move forward with this project.To this end, we will first develop a community outreach plan before we take steps to deploy the UAS.
Following the completion of the community outreach efforts, the Department will then develop the policy and procedures that will provide an appropriate and practical framework to guide our operation of the UAS. At the same time, we will continue to research legal implications and Federal Aviation Administration requirements for the operation a UAS by SJPD.
We are confident that this technology can improve certain police operational efficiencies and help enhance public and officer safety in specific critical incidents. However, SJPD will not use the UAS until these outreach and procedural steps have been completed and approved.
Previous SJPD statements similarly emphasized that the hexacopter will stay on the shelf until R&D analysts have a chance to research what the Federal Aviation Administration requires for law enforcement to fly drones in domestic airspace. But additional documents released yesterday evening indicate that high-level SJPD officers had erroneously concluded months earlier that the department was exempt from FAA regulation.
A March 21 memo signed by Chief Larry Esquivel and authored by the SJPD bomb squad commander asserted that FAA regulations “are not directed at hobby store-type crafts similar to the one we purchased."
A summary of the memo circulated by email to the chief and several other SJPD commanders in early March simplified things further: "The UAV is not a drone. Drones are regulated by the FAA. The FAA doesn't regulate our device."
The department's confusion reflects a general consensus across the drone industry that the FAA has not been particularly clear about where its drone regulations are headed.
But in this case, the FAA has long made clear that all government agencies require authorization to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle in domestic airspace, regardless of the particular body type or where the unit was purchased. Hobby UAVs that weigh less than 55 pounds and fly under 400 feet are exempt from licensing requirements, but hobbyist rules do not apply to governmental applications.
In signing off on the memo in March, two months after SJPD purchased its drone, the chief and assistant chief alike called for the city attorney to review its usage. The chief also called for a specific policy to be drafted around UAV implementation, as well as "messaging/outreach to public" as a condition of his approval.
Four months later, the SJPD has now committed to seeking FAA authorization and developing a policy for its drone based on public input.