Oakland PD to launch drone program with grant, private donations

Chief LeRonne Armstrong thanked the community, saying his department will no longer have to rely on other agencies' equipment

By George Kelly
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — Police said Monday that three drones donated by private organizations would see use as part of a new fleet program meant to assist officers responding to active investigations.

At an afternoon press conference at police headquarters, Oakland police Chief LeRonne Armstrong answered questions about the drones' intended use for searches and rescues, missing-person investigations, and de-escalation efforts during engagements with barricaded armed suspects. Armstrong was joined by representatives of the private groups that donated the equipment: Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council interim president Stewart Chen and California Waste Solutions CEO David Duong.

The drones will not collect facial-recognition data or use artificial intelligence, Armstrong said, and police will only keep footage and other captured information for five days unless it is linked to a specific criminal investigation.

"You know, over many press conferences I've spoken very clearly that we need help from the community to address crime, that the police department couldn't do it alone," Armstrong said in part.

"Today, our community has stepped up for us. ... This is a tool that we for many years have had to call on other police departments for support, asking them to bring forth their equipment to support our efforts. Now we have our own in-house equipment."

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Armstrong said the drones would help limit officer use and improve safety efforts, adding that training would continue and expand, including additional officers. He said there would be no casual trawling or surveying of neighborhoods, homeless encampments or areas at high risk for dumping.

Armstrong further said that there were no plans to use the devices over protests or other legal gatherings, but that officers might use them at sideshows.

The department plans to use a $80,000 grant to cover costs for extra batteries to supplement the drones' 30-minute battery limits before going to the City Council later if additional funding is needed, Armstrong said.

"The city of Oakland has always been one that wanted to make sure that there was no Big Brother, that we would be respecting people's rights. And so I think this is a step forward," he said in part.

Brian Hofer, who chairs the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, said Monday's announcement could have happened anytime after the commission's conditional approval recommendation to the city council and the council's adoption, which took place in late 2020.

"The condition of approval for the corresponding [d]rone use policy was that general funds not be used to acquire the drones," Hofer said in part. "Previously, OPD had been borrowing the Alameda County Sheriff's drones, we did not retain full control over the data or third party access, and we could not make the Sheriff subject to our use policy restrictions.

"Now that the drone use is fully in-house, the City of Oakland has more oversight of the drones, along with stronger transparency and accountability mechanisms pertinent to their use."

Advocacy Director Tracy Rosenberg from Oakland Privacy also weighed in Thursday.

"While we are not happy that OPD wants to acquire these drones, the use policy will prevent routine flying over the City and delete all data not needed for a criminal investigation after five days," Rosenberg said in part. "Like many Oaklanders, we consider drones invasive and insist they be used with restraint and in full accordance with the policy. We will be active in seeking immediate redress if there is any off-policy use."

In remarks Thursday, Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council interim president Stewart Chen said that he had learned of the conditions during a casual lunch with Sgt. Chung, and asked questions around privacy and drone use before beginning to reach out to raise funds.

"I'm so excited and so happy to see this happening," Chen said. "Hopefully this will keep Oakland safe, not just Chinatown, because we can easily just provide one or two drones, but we provided enough drones to cover the entire city."

California Waste Solutions CEO David Duong said his son came to him and told him about Chen's fund-raising efforts.

"I have friends who got robbed in Chinatown. I've seen people that got robbed in front of our office. I see all this and want to do something for our community, for our city. We don't know what we can do," Duong said.

"I think that the partnership between the community in Oakland and with the police, with the city and with the council, we all can take our city back safely. We want to be part of helping. We start our businesses here and we grow up here. We want to give back to our community and want to make sure that our city is safe."

(c)2022 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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