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Seattle police break promise to return drones to manufacturer

Published time: March 25, 2014 21:14
Edited time: March 25, 2014 22:08
A Draganflyer X6, six-rotor remote controlled helicopter which can fly up to 20 mph and travel up to a quarter mile away and 400 feet high (Reuters / Chris Francescani)

A Draganflyer X6, six-rotor remote controlled helicopter which can fly up to 20 mph and travel up to a quarter mile away and 400 feet high (Reuters / Chris Francescani)

Over a year after public outcry led the Seattle Police Department to promise to return its two drones to their manufacturer, the drones remain in its possession, albeit grounded.

The Seattle PD purchased two Draganflyer X-6 Helicopter Tech unmanned aerial vehicles for $82,000 in 2010, funded by grants from the Department of Homeland Security. Neither the city council nor the public knew of the police drone program until a 2012 lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation over the department’s application for operation certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2010.

The EFF lawsuit revealed that Seattle police received Urban Area Security Initiative funding from DHS not only to buy the drones, but to pay for UAV flight training and ground school for police officers. Both of those training programs are required to receive FAA certification. The resulting public outcry over the lawsuit forced the mayor to pull the plug on the program in February 2013.

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," the mayor said to the media at the time. “The vehicles will be returned to the vendor.”

But now a Freedom of Information request by Motherboard to confirm that the 3.5-lbs. drones have been decommissioned shows that the UAVs haven’t gone anywhere.

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." Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey wrote last Friday.

Bailey said there was not any further communication between the police department and either the mayor’s office or with Draganfly about returning the grounded UAVs. Motherboard says it has sent a FOIA request to DHS over the SPD program as well.

SPD hinted in March 2013 that they were having trouble returning the drones to the manufacturer. The department posted in its blog, 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 blog post, written by Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s Public Affairs Director, also promised that the drones would remain grounded, and that the department would cooperate with the city council, which was planning legislation to restrict the use of drones.

The SPD UAV program ended on February 7th. There are no plans to reinstate it,” he wrote. “We support council’s legislation on surveillance. We’re done with drones & will continue our focus on public safety and community building.”

When the SPD introduced the drone program to the public, it said the drones were to be used for typical police work, such as bomb threats, search and rescue and crime-scene photography. But the public and civil liberties advocates quickly turned against the program. When Mayor Mike McGinn ended the program, advocacy groups applauded.

American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Doug Honig told press at the time, "Drones would have given the police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on the privacy of people in Seattle,” and that “there was a never a strong case made that Seattle needed them for public safety."

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