Many protesters observed the use of multiple drones at the West Contra Costa County Detention Center on June 30, 2018, during a protest against ICE and its practice of family separation. Journalist Darwin BondGraham wrote about this in an East Bay Express article on July 3, 2018. Documents released in response to a public records request indicated that the drone was also flown over the June 26, 2018, protest at the same facility.
The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s drone (or unmanned aerial vehicle/system) program was started in 2016. The agency purchased its first drone on September 7, 2016, a DJI Phantom 4, from Fry’s Electronics on Willow Pass Road for $1,685.14. The drone was returned and exchanged for the same model on September 13, 2016.
Despite the purchase of a drone in 2016, the Contra Costa County Sheriff did not have a policy for drones (referred to as Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems) until January 5, 2017. The policy is “CCCSO General Policy and Procedure Section 1.06.84 – Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS).”
Page 3 of the drone policy lists 10 “authorized missions” for drones, but none appear to cover the large peaceful protests at the West Contra Costa County Detention Center. Retention of data collected by the drones but not of evidentiary value is not detailed in the policy, but is the same as the “CCCSO General Policy and Procedure Section 1.06.82 – Mobile Audio and Body-worn Camera,” which states:
All video/audio recordings that are not booked into evidence in the form of a CD, DVD or other “hard” copy format, will be retained in storage for a period of two years, after which they will be deleted. Recordings relevant to on-going criminal proceedings must be retained for so long as the prosecution is pending.
However, a significant loophole allows indefinite retention of data collected by drones if the Special Operations Division Commander decides that it is useful for “training and development.”
A public records request for copy of any video or photos collected by drones during the June 30, 2018, protest received the following response from the Contra Costa County Sheriff:
With respect to your second and third requests for “All photos and video” taken on June 30, 2018 at the West County Detention Facility, such photos and video, to the extent that they exist or may exist, are subject to the exclusions set forth in the Public Records Act for “security procedures of … or any investigatory or security files compiled by any … local agency for correctional [or] law enforcement … purposes,” and accordingly are not subject to the Public Records Act (Government Code §6254(f)).
On January 10, 2017, Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems invoiced the Contra Costa County Sheriff $16,574.75 for a DJI Inspire I drone, DJI Zenmuse XT (a thermal imaging camera), DJI Zenmuse Z3 integrated aerial zoom camera, and a variety of related supplies.
Shortly thereafter, on March 1, 2017, the Contra Costa County Sheriff logged its first drone mission, to inspect a landslide on Morgan Territory Road the occurred on February 24, 2017. The second drone mission was also on March 1, 2017, this time for a civil eviction on Byron Hot Springs Road “Due to a history of threats against the police and drug activity.”
The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s log of drone missions details 25 missions from March 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018. The log details DJI Inspire drone flights at the West Contra Costa County Detention Center on June 26 and June 30, 2018. Lt. David Cook requested and approved use of the drone on both days. Deputy Casey Tholborn was the pilot on June 26 and Deputy Hall was the pilot on June 30. The logs refer only to Drone 1, a DJI Phantom 4, and Drone 2, a DJI Inspire 1, despite the eventual purchase of a third drone.
The most recent drone purchase by the Contra Costa County Sheriff was a DJI Phantom 4 from B&H Photo for $899 on March 8, 2018.
Like body cameras, law enforcement agencies have complete control of any data gathered by the drones, so it is unclear how exactly drones are used for peaceful protests, such as the June 26 and June 30, 2018, protests at the West Contra Costa County Detention Center. Without any transparency regarding the use of drones, there will continue to be no oversight and accountability of law enforcement use of equipment that can be and has been used for surveillance.
In addition to the lack of transparency, the federal government has expressed concerns about DJI (Da Jiang Innovations) providing “Critical Infrastructure and Law Enforcement Data to Chinese Government” and the US Army warned to “Discontinue Use of Dajiang Innovation (DJI) Corporation Unmanned Aircraft Systems” based on a May 25, 2017, report by the Army Research Laboratory entitled “DJI UAS Technology Threat and User Vulnerabilities” and a May 24, 2017, US Navy memo entitled “Operational Risks with Regards to DJI Family of Products.”