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Originally published October 25, 2012 at 10:44 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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Protesters steal the show at Seattle police gathering to explain intended use of drones

Chants of "no drones" and cries of "murderer" and "shame" were heard during first community meeting seeking public opinion on the Seattle Police department's plans to use unmanned aerial systems for law enforcement.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It was hard to hear Thursday night what Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh was trying to say about how the Seattle Police Department hopes to use drones to save lives and increase public safety — what with the chanting of "no drones" and the loud cries of "murderer" and "shame" drowning him out.

The first community meeting seeking public opinion on the department's plans to use unmanned aerial systems, or drones, for law enforcement was taken over by protesters who prevented McDonagh from talking for more than half of the two-hour meeting.

The meeting, held at the Garfield Community Center, was attended by about 100 people. A few sat quietly and tried to listen, a few wanted to see the drones for themselves, but the majority were there to challenge police powers.

"We don't trust you with the weapons you do have," shouted a man who said his name was General Malaise. "We are not going to tolerate this in our city. This is unacceptable," yelled Emma Kaplan from The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. "NO DRONES!"

"Hasn't anyone heard of George Orwell's 1984?" asked a man who gave his name only as Matt. E. "This is the militarization of our streets and now the air above us."

The Police Department bought two 3.5-pound Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Techs in 2010 with money from a regional Urban Area Security Initiative grant and then applied for FAA approval to use them.

The department was just one of a handful of law-enforcement agencies to get FAA approval for drones after the president signed a law compelling the agency to plan for the safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015. Most of the other agencies to get the nod from the FAA were universities and federal agencies.

The police department's proposed guidelines state that the department's unmanned aerial systems will be authorized in the following types of investigations and responses: homicide and traffic, hazardous material, search and rescue, barricaded persons and natural disasters.

According to the guidelines, police say, they will not use the drones to "conduct random surveillance activities" and will make vigilant efforts to protect citizen privacy by, for example, having cameras facing away from occupied structures.

However, the draft also leaves open the possibility that the drones will be deployed in other uses.

That causes concern for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which has called for police and city leaders to tightly regulate what kind of information can be collected by drones, who can collect it, how the information can be used and how long it will be kept.

"The ways that they say they can use the drones is too broad," said Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington. "They have a list of different emergencies and then a catchall phrase saying the drones can also be used in other situations if they get permission."

Shaw says the proper use of police drones should be mandated by a city ordinance rather than a police policy.

"So long as it is a policy, it can be changed. An ordinance cannot be changed at will and is the only way we can be sure there is meaningful input," she said.

Shaw also said the ACLU would like to see laws that require police to seek a warrant before drones are used, with exceptions made for emergencies.

Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the crowd's reaction Thursday night was not a surprise.

"We expected a large turnout and a passionate discourse," said Whitcomb.

He said the forum was held to further the department's efforts to improve transparency and communicate more clearly to the public. "We want to hear the concerns and shape our policy to reflect that."

Dennis Brandow, a Bellevue resident who attended the forum because of his interest in unmanned aerial systems and his desire to get into the field, was disappointed by what he didn't get to hear.

"I think it's crazy," said Brandow. "They're all bitching about technology that's already here. It's really ignorant. In five to seven years, you're not even going to see TV helicopters in the air anymore.

"It's like the Internet. Some people might not like it, but it's going to happen."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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