A Freedom of Information Act request published Tuesday revealed that the Seattle Police Department has secretly kept two surveillance drones despite assuring residents that they would return them to their vendor last February.
In 2010, Seattle police used federal grant money from the Department of Homeland Security to quietly obtain two Draganflyer X-6 surveillance drones as well as flight training for select officers. After a 2012 lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation uncovered the acquisition, public outcry ensued.
While attempts were made by the embattled department to quell public concern, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn ordered an immediate halt to the program in early 2013, also announcing that both drones would be returned to their vendor.
“Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority,” a statement from the former mayor reads.
Now, a FOIA request regarding the axed drone program has produced a telling response from Seattle Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey.
“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.” Bailey wrote.
“Additionally a comprehensive search of the email archive was conducted using the terms ‘return’ and ‘drone’ resulting in no responsive documents. Finally a separate search was conducted by SPD personnel for any documents, memo, etc. between SPD and the Mayor’s office or UAV manufacturer using the search terms ‘UAV’ and ‘UAS’ and that search also resulted in no responsive documents.”
Although a 2013 statement from the department claimed that the DHS refused to take the drones back, residents are questioning why Seattle police have held on to the drones for more than a year.
The Seattle Privacy Coalition, one of Washington state’s most prominent civil rights groups, noted that the drones are only one part of a much more concerning issue; the SPD’s surveillance war chest.
“Surveillance technology advances rapidly. The fact that SPD’s 2012-era drones, with their 15-minute battery life and inability to fly in the rain, are sitting on a shelf here in Seattle gathering dust doesn’t worry us,” Seattle Privacy Coalition spokesperson Phil Mocek told Storyleak.
“We’re more concerned about the continued lack of meaningful oversight of the police department, and about the fact that our police continue to use their U.S. Department of Homeland Security slush fund to purchase equipment the public doesn’t trust them to use in a constitutional manner.”
Unfortunately, the City of Seattle and its police officials already have a long history of quietly ignoring promises regarding surveillance technology.
Late last year, shortly after Seattle residents learned of the city’s secretive DHS-funded mesh network nodes, devices capable of swiping unsuspecting residents’ private cell phone information, SPD spokesperson Sgt. Sean Whitcomb announced that the network would be deactivated until further notice.
“The wireless mesh network will be deactivated until city council approves a draft policy and until there’s an opportunity for vigorous public debate,” Whitcomb said.
Soon after, residents discovered the mesh network to still be broadcasting a signal throughout the city’s downtown area.
Although it is unclear whether or not the department has been purposely deceptive, the SPD’s lax attitude towards rectifying major Fourth Amendment violations has done little to ease the minds of surveillance-weary residents.
Despite promises to uphold the publics’ civil liberties, the department continues to accept federal cash for overreaching surveillance technology.
Even in light of Seattle’s secret participation in TrapWire, a 2012 pilot project that ran a sophisticated facial recognition program through the city’s CCTV cameras, the SPD announced last month that they would begin using a new DHS-funded facial recognition program anyway.