Marin County Sheriff's Office Preparing to Launch Drone Program

Capt. Augustus is adamant public privacy will remain protected.

TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office is preparing to launch its first unmanned aerial systems program, according to the Marin Independent Journal. While law enforcement in Marin expects to get its hands on these modern aerial tools in 60 to 90 days, Capt. David Augustus is wary of using the word “drone” to describe them, for fear of unnerving the public.

“I don’t like that word,” said Augustus. “Drones have an inference of military surveillance or weaponry. That’s not what these are.” 

Frankly, it’s not only endearing to hear an officer of the law be so careful with his words and how those he’s hired to protect might respond to his behavior, but extremely heartening to sense drones are likely in the right hands, here. In terms of specific equipment those hands will operate, however, Marin County is yet uncertain. “We’re still in the exploratory stages of that,” said Augustus. “We’re looking at two to three, maybe up to four [drones].”

On the other hand, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office has certainly been preparing in other ways, having already trained four pilots to fly the incoming drones, and setting aside an initial $20,000 to $25,000 investment for the program’s early stages. “We’re going to start small and expand it from there,” explained Augustus. 

If it seems like some of the core elements of this program are still in flux, they certainly are, and it’s only due to Sausalito resident Frank Shinneman that the drone program was outed during a Board of Supervisors meeting last week. “It has recently been revealed that Sheriff Doyle is in the process of acquiring drones under the name of small unmanned aerial systems,” he said during a portion of the meeting open to the public.

“The Sheriff’s policy does not provide protection against public surveillance, it does not contain reporting on use nor does it limit the sharing of the video surveillance with other authorities including NCRICK (Northern California Regional Intelligence Center), DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and other agencies such as ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”

Shinemman isn’t the only citizen wary of handing over sophisticated surveillance tools to law enforcement instated to watch over and protect us. With an increasing amount of public safety offices across the U.S. deciding to implement unmanned aerial vehicles as part of their regular law enforcement activities, comes a corresponding counter-push by groups such as the ACLU and regular citizens looking for proper oversight. 

For Shinneman, his personal appropriate counter-measure was asking the Board of Supervisors to “halt any future drone acquisition plans until there is a public forum justifying the need, and implementing a limited use policy which provides privacy protections from these surveillance systems.” 

Capt. Augustus, meanwhile, firmly stated that the drones will not be used to surveil citizens, and that the biggest proponents of the upcoming drone program were the department’s volunteers in search and rescue operations. Ultimately, it is this push-and-pull which is most vital when instituting new technologies that have massive potential for misuse and overarching shifts in how societies function. As long as there are two sides with reasonable motivations, and small compromises are made by both parties to reach a mutual middle ground, drone use by law enforcement could feasibly become simply another tool to be used appropriately, most of the time. Stay tuned.