Kent residents concerned about purchase of drones for police use

Drones are being deployed in a small, but growing number of state and local law enforcement operations. COURTESY PHOTO

Two women let the Kent City Council know they didn’t like how members approved the police department’s purchase of drones without input from residents.

“We feel the community has not been able to have a conversation with the council on this matter, and nothing should move forward until there is a community meeting where individuals of Kent could come forward and speak about the usage of drones,” said Komalpreet Kaur Sahota, of Kent, during the public comment period of the March 7 council meeting.

Sahota said she opposed the police’s use of drones. She said she also represented other people who oppose drones but were unable to attend the meeting.

“We demand that you let the citizens of Kent come forward and hold a conversation about the usage of drones because there are many people strongly against this,” Sahota said.

Angel Mitchell, of Kent, spoke next to the council and agreed with Sahota.

“The thing that’s most troubling to me is it was printed in the (Feb. 24) Kent Reporter that there was going to be a presentation about this matter at 4 today (in front of the council’s Operations Committee),” Mitchell said. “I showed up at 4 and there was no presentation. Then I’m here at 7 o’clock and I don’t see it on the agenda. When is this happening? Why don’t we know?”

Mayor Suzette Cooke responded after the two women spoke.

“Based on the last two comments it might be wise if we want to explain UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones),” Cooke said as she looked at the seven-member council.

Councilman Jim Berrios, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee that helps oversee the police department, answered first.

“This topic did come up at our last Public Safety Committee meeting (Feb. 14) and we did have a lengthy discussion about how they will be used,” Berrios said. “Derek (Matheson) do you want to elaborate a little bit on that?”

Matheson, the city chief administrative officer, addressed the issue.

“We are talking about some very limited uses of this technology,” Matheson said. “This was discussed at length by the Public Safety Committee. The Operations Committee did touch on it but actually touched on it quite quickly today because two (Dana Ralph and Les Thomas) of the three committee members are on the Public Safety Committee. And there was the coverage on KOMO television and in the Kent Reporter as well.”

After Matheson’s comments, the council voted to approve the consent calendar, which included the purchase of two drones as well as portable video cameras by the police department. The consent calendar includes items not considered controversial by the council and that were approved by 3-0 votes at committee meetings.

Police Chief Ken Thomas first revealed the department’s plan to purchase drones at the Feb. 14 Public Safety Committee as an informational item, part of a $479,000 package of various expenditures from the school zone traffic camera fund. The proposal then went to the Operations Committee on March 7, just three hours before that night’s council meeting, and the committee approved it with a 3-0 vote.

Normally items approved at committee meetings do not go to the full council for a couple of weeks. Ralph explained at the Operations Committee meeting that the police purchases went right to that night’s consent calendar because they had been discussed at the earlier Public Safety Committee meeting and there were no questions or concerns.

Chief Thomas said at the Public Safety Committee meeting that the drones would be used to enhance major traffic collision investigations, outdoor crime scenes and SWAT operations.

Sahota told the council she had plenty of concerns about the use of drones.

“It targets more so communities of color and further incarcerates them,” she said. “That’s our concern. Even if used for traffic, there is potential for it to be used for other things such as SWAT investigations.”

Mitchell also shared her concerns about drones with the council.

“When we look at the state of this country, how can we even consider putting that type of power in the hands of people?” she said. “Police officers are people and subject to the times they are in. We can’t pretend that racism doesn’t seep into the police department … by giving them anyone the power to look at their will at your house or at a protest. I go to protests, but I’m worried because of my activism I would be targeted by this and that is troubling to me.”

Councilwoman Brenda Fincher responded to the women’s criticisms about a lack of discussion about drones.

“It was talked about in public,” Fincher said. “It was the police community meeting two meetings ago (in October on the West Hill). I was there and I believe Berrios and Ralph were there and that was the main topic of that meeting.”

Thomas told the council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday evening that Assistant Police Chief Ralph Padilla gave a presentation on drones at the fall community meeting.

“We have continued to talk about that in an effort to be very transparent,” Thomas said. “That is why it was the theme of the community meeting. We have talked about it. It has been very public.”

After the consent calendar vote at the March 7 council meeting, Councilman Dennis Higgins asked a question.

“I want to inquire to Councilmember Berrios or anyone else in the meeting with Public Safety is there a written policy for the use of the equipment that we just purchased?” he said.

Matheson responded.

“I can’t recall off the top of my head where we are in that process but I know that has been a matter of discussion within the police department and the city administration,” Matheson said.

Thomas presented the department’s written policy on drone use at Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee. The policy outlines authorized uses and addresses privacy concerns.

In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Thomas said Padilla worked on the policy for several months and looked at the Renton Police Department’s policy for guidance.

“When we make a policy, we will got out to other agencies, instead of re-inventing the wheel,” Thomas said.

Generally, policies don’t require council approval, Thomas said, but it was reviewed by the city attorney.

The drone policy won’t be posted on the city’s website, Thomas said. People who want to examine it can make a public records request through the City Clerk’s Office.

– Reporter Heidi Sanders contributed to this story.