Berkeley bans police drones for one year

The Berkeley City Council voted to impose a one-year moratorium on the use of drones by the city’s Police Department but authorized the fire department to use them for disaster response purposes.

The council’s vote at its meeting on Tuesday night disappointed Bob Meola of the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, which had proposed a two-year moratorium on the use of drones.

The commission has been seeking a permanent ban on drones for more than two years and Meola said today that the proposed two-year moratorium was merely “a temporary Band-Aid for a potentially critical wound” while the city develops a long-term policy.

Meola said of the City Council, “They might as well have done nothing” about drones.

In their vote, the council pledged to formulate a policy for the police use of drones. Some council members said at the meeting that the proposed two-year moratorium would have been too long, too broad in scope or possibly unnecessary altogether. Seven council members voted for the compromise measure that was adopted.┬áLori Droste voted against it because she thought it’s unnecessary and Kriss Worthington abstained because he wants a more restrictive policy.

Mayor Tom Bates’ spokesman Charles Burress said Bates and the council majority didn’t want to impose a blanket ban on all city uses of drones because they think drones might be useful in emergencies such as fires and earthquakes.

Although Berkeley’s police and fire departments don’t currently have drones and don’t have any plans to acquire them, Burress said the council majority wants to leave open the possibility of having the fire department borrow a drone from another government agency in the event of an emergency.

Meola said his fear is that if the fire department gets a drone, it could lend it to the Police Department. He also said he also doesn’t want the fire department to have access to drones under any circumstances until the city comes up with a comprehensive policy on drones.

Asked if he thought it was possible that the city might come up with a stronger policy on drones by the end of the one-year moratorium, Meola said:

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the Berkeley City Council doing the right thing in a timely manner.”

The Peace and Justice Commission first proposed a ban on drones back on Dec. 18, 2012, but the City Council referred the issue back to the commission, the Police Review Commission and the city’s Disaster and Fire Safety Commission for further review.┬áThe Peace and Justice Commission held a town hall meeting on the issue on May 1, 2013, and the City Council had a work session on the subject last April.

In proposing the two-year moratorium, the commission said in a letter to the council that a moratorium should be put in place as soon as possible “given the fact that it is and will be easier to regulate drones before they fill Berkeley’s skies than after they are already in Berkeley’s skies.”

The resolution proposed by the commission said, “The rapid implementation of drone technology throughout the U.S. poses a serious threat to the privacy and constitutional rights of the American people, including the residents of Berkeley.”