Two hand-me-down miniature helicopter drones given away for free by Seattle after a political uproar there are now under lock and key in Los Angeles, where a police commission vows to keep the aircraft grounded until it approves rules for their limited use.
The LAPD says the newly acquired Draganflyer X6 pilotless choppers, equipped to carry video cameras and night-vision lenses, are intended for SWAT-team use against armed suspects who may be barricaded alone or with hostages.
But echoing objections aired in Seattle, civil libertarians in California's largest city say law enforcement use of airborne robots raises questions about privacy rights, the limits of government powers to snoop on its citizens and the militarization of police agencies.
Although police in both cities have said the drones would never carry weapons, the deployment of pilotless aircraft has drawn associations with covert U.S. missile strikes in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.
Seattle police originally purchased the drones in 2010 with an $80,000 federal grant, but a plan to deploy them to search for missing persons and fugitives and to assist in certain criminal investigations was scrapped last year in the face of community opposition.
The drones were given to Los Angeles free of charge earlier this summer, though they are to be kept in federal possession until the LAPD devised protocols for their use.
Controversy flared anew last Friday, when the drones were physically turned over to the city, prompting an outcry from opponents who said the move was premature and sowed mistrust.
The Los Angeles Police Commission, an independent board that oversees the LAPD, responded on Monday by saying the drones had been placed in the custody of the agency's inspector general until the LAPD presents the commission draft policies on their use that reflect public input.
"They're hot potatoes, and we're going to put them in the freezer," commission president Steve Soboroff told Reuters.
Jamie Garcia, an organizer for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, voiced distrust of what she called "mission creep" of paramilitary tactics. She cited a recent American Civil Liberties Union report that found nearly 80 percent of SWAT raids were used to serve search warrants, usually in drug cases.
LAPD spokesman Commander Andrew Smith said if the drones were approved for deployment, their use would be narrowly limited to armed-barricade situations and would not be used for crowd control, surveillance or the pursuit of suspects.
He insisted police would only implement a drone program with community approval, quoting Police Chief Charlie Beck as saying, "We're not going to trade public support and public trust for a piece of equipment."
(Reporting by Steve Gorman. Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)