After a public backlash, the Seattle PD said it would return its drones. It hasn't.
In February 2013, after vocal community opposition to police use of drones, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn announced that he had grounded the program and ordered its two Draganflyer X-6 units be “returned to the vendor.”
More than a year later, Seattle Police Department still has not shipped its two drones back.
In response to a freedom of information request for documents that would confirm the decommissioning, SPD Interim Chief Harry Bailey wrote back last Friday: "As of the date of this correspondence the Seattle Police Department has not returned the unmanned aerial surveillance drones and therefore does not have any responsive documents in regards to packing slips, receipts for shipping, etc."
Seattle police purchased their two units in 2010 with $82,000 in funds from the Department of Homeland Security, but did not inform the city council or the public. When an Electronic Frontier Foundation lawsuit in 2012 revealed that the department had applied for Federal Aviation Administration licenses to operate the drones, police officials were forced to apologize.
The ensuing backlash doomed police drone operations in Seattle at a time when SPD was considering purchasing additional units.
Last March, Seattle police hinted that it was having issues returning their unmanned aerial vehicles.
In a March 26, 2013 blotter post, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s Public Affairs Director, wrote, “The SPD UAV program ended on February 7th. There are no plans to reinstate it.” He elaborated:
“While the vehicles haven’t been returned to the vendor—a proposition more complex than expected—we’re still working with DHS to determine their final disposition."
The next day, Whitcomb told Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger that its units “were gently used and the return policy had expired. Something to that effect."
Interim Chief Bailey did not provide any further details as to the fate of SPD’s drones, although he claimed that there had been no communications between the mayor’s office and police about the matter, or with the manufacturer. I have also requested communications with the Department of Homeland Security, in light of Whitcomb’s statements last year.