ESCONDIDO — At its June 5 meeting, the Escondido City Council authorized the purchase of a drone for the Escondido Police Department and voted to accept federal dollars under a controversial immigration program.
Both items were listed on the Consent Calendar, meaning they received no public debate by the City Council because none of the members requested that either of the items be pulled. Consent Calendar items receive a vote by governing bodies void of discussion.
“To expedite meetings and reserve time for matters that need to be discussed, many local agencies have a section on their agendas labeled as the ‘consent calendar,’” explains the Institute for Local Government, a local government advocacy organization based in Sacramento. “Items on the consent calendar are generally non-controversial items that do not require much, if any, discussion.”
And yet, both of the items passed on the Consent Calendar have come under controversy in other municipalities.
According to the background documents published as part of the meeting, the Escondido Police Department received a $41,670 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to purchase an unmanned aircraft system, known by many as a drone. It will be used by the department’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit (UASU), which has existed since 2017.
“To date, the UASU has flown 117 missions,” explain the documents. “The aircraft have proven to be reliable and safe with no accidents, injuries or property damage as a result of training or operational flights.”
Some of those missions have included overseeing SWAT operations from above, aiding in searches for missing people and suspected criminals fleeing from crime scenes, as well as other civic-minded uses to help in city planning efforts, according to City Council documents from the meeting. The Escondido Police Department says it complies with all Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, as well as Fourth Amendment privacy protections, in the grant documents.
The grant money will enable the Escondido Police Department to purchase a DJI Matrice 210, a drone owned by a company based in China. The drone will not have weapons, and will be used for surveillance purposes only, the police department says in the grant documents appended to the City Council agenda.
“The FAA strictly forbids weaponized small unmanned aircraft systems,” it wrote. “The Escondido Police Department UASU does not, and will never, consider utilizing unmanned aircraft for anything other than passive observation and intelligence gathering during mission-specific law enforcement, fire, and disaster operations.”
Despite that language, however, the libertarian Cato Institute has stated that it believes California law and the Fourth Amendment provide little protection against warrantless aerial surveillance. California, for example, does not require law enforcement agencies to have a warrant before doing above-ground surveillance. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed AB 1327, the Drone Privacy Protection Act, calling for such a warrant.
“Many Americans could be forgiven for thinking that this constitutional provision would act as a shield against warrantless aerial surveillance,” wrote Cato in 2017. “Sadly, this is not the case. California law is similarly of little help.”
For the immigration enforcement federal grant received by the Escondido Police Department, the agency received a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under that agency’s Operation Stonegarden Grant program.
Operation Stonegarden began in 2003 in order to streamline relationships between local, state and federal law enforcement units on immigration enforcement efforts. It has come under fire in some circles for putting local law enforcement agencies in the business of doing immigration enforcement work and sometimes aiding in deporting illegal immigrants.
Escondido Police Department, however, has pledged not to do immigration-related work with the grant money.
“The Department proposes to use grant funds to pay overtime expenses for multi-disciplinary crime suppression operations related to human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, criminal gang activity, and weapons trafficking,” explain documents provided in the packet for the June 5 meeting. “Grant funds will not be used to enforce immigration laws on behalf of Customs and Border Protection/Border Patrol.”
The Escondido Police Department joins the Chula Vista Police Department, San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department as units which have drones as part of their arsenals. The purchase of the drone by the Escondido Police Department comes just over two months after the Escondido City Council voted to allow the agency to purchase a robotic police officer, also lacking lethal firepower capacity, with money it had received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Photo Caption: Police Unmanned Aircraft System, (UAS) Drone Flying Above A City Street. File photo.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.