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Originally published May 2, 2012 at 8:55 PM | Page modified May 2, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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Police apologize for not keeping council in loop on new drones

An assistant Seattle police chief apologized to City Council members Wednesday for not keeping them fully informed about the department's plans to use aerial drones.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An assistant Seattle police chief apologized to City Council members Wednesday for not keeping them informed about the department's plans to use aerial drones.

City leaders and the public were caught by surprise last week when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington raised questions about the department's planned use of two unmanned aerial vehicles it received in 2010 under a federal homeland-security grant.

Police have been training to operate the drones, but no policies have yet been drafted to guide their use. Police say the drones won't be deployed until those policies are in place within the next few months.

"We probably could have done a better job in communicating to the city. I apologize for that," Paul McDonagh, assistant chief for operations, told the City Council Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee at a hearing.

The drones can hold cameras to take pictures or video or be equipped with sensors to detect dangerous radioactive or chemical elements. Police say they can show live, aerial views of crime scenes or accidents and could help track lost or missing people.

McDonagh sought to reassure council members that the department would work with city leaders, the community and the ACLU to draft policies about how the drones would be used and how resulting pictures would be retained or released.

The 3.5-pound drones have a battery life of just 10 minutes. They can't fly above 400 feet and must remain within sight of the operator at all times, under Federal Aviation Administration rules. They also can't fly at night or above crowds.

McDonagh gave the example of last weekend's incident involving Peter Keller, a survivalist and double-murder suspect, holed up in a bunker on a steep mountain hillside. He said a drone could have gotten closer faster than officers on the scene who waited through the night out of concerns that Keller was heavily armed. The next day, officers discovered Keller had fatally shot himself.

He said a drone could also be used to determine whether a suspect was in an apartment or had hostages.

"The idea of generally flying around to monitor the city, that's not part of our plan," McDonagh said.

Still, City Council members expressed some skepticism.

"We want to encourage you guys to be innovative. On the other hand, is it a toy or is it a useful tool? The best thing is to bring us along," said Councilmember Mike O'Brien.

Jennifer Shaw of the ACLU told the council that the city could be a national leader in creating policies for drone use that respect individual privacy while making the best use of a new law-enforcement tool.

But she said she would reserve judgment until a written policy is proposed.

The police applied for a homeland-security grant in 2008. That grant was approved by then-Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council, but the drones weren't acquired until 2010.

Ten police officers are currently being trained to operate the drones, according to a memo from Police Chief John Diaz to council members in response to their questions. Diaz said operating and training costs are expected to be minimal.

Under FAA guidelines, all drone operators must also have a commercial-pilot license, a provision that committee Chair Bruce Harrell suggested might be "overkill."

After the hearing, Councilmember Nick Licata said the police's failure to more fully disclose its drone program "played into people's worst fears" of being spied on by the government.

"We know there have been instances where police agencies have crossed the line and violated people's civil rights. Going forward, I hope they will be open and transparent."

Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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