A drone spotted in Berkeley last October. Photo: William Newton
A drone spotted in Berkeley last October. Photo: William Newton

The Berkeley City Council voted last week to enact a one-year moratorium on the use or acquisition of drones by the Berkeley Police Department.

The Feb. 24 vote came despite the fact that the department had no plans to get or use a drone.

“We don’t own a drone. We have no budget for drones. We have no plan to buy a drone,” said Police Chief Michael Meehan on Friday. “It’s not on our radar.”

Read more about drones in Berkeley.

Council voted Tuesday to allow the Berkeley Fire Department to use drones in disaster response efforts. But officials, for the most part, said they are not comfortable with police using drones for law enforcement purposes until the city hashes out a policy on the subject. As part of last week’s vote, they pledged to work on that policy at some point in the future.

The vote Tuesday does not affect privately-owned drones in Berkeley. 

Over the past few years, council has considered the regulation of drones within the city. Officials asked the city’s panels on Peace & Justice and Disaster and Fire Safety to bring back recommendations on the subject. Council received those reports last April, but took no further steps on fleshing out a policy.

Tuesday night, the Peace & Justice Commission brought the issue back to council, asking for a two-year moratorium on the use of municipal drones in Berkeley to give the city more time to think about the issue while also taking some steps to protect privacy. Officials said they were not prepared to do that, but came up with a compromise approach in the interim.

Eleven members of the public told council that they felt it would be important to limit the use of drones in Berkeley and by city departments. Local resident Jacquelyn McCormick said she didn’t think the proposal went far enough, in that it does not extend to the use of private drones in the city.

“I don’t want someone filming me walking down the street,” she told council. “I don’t want that kind of invasion in my personal space, in my personal life.”

District 8 Councilwoman Lori Droste was the lone “no” vote against the moratorium. She said, rather than ban the technology outright, the city should focus on how to address concerns about police surveillance, if that was the main concern. Droste called the idea of a broad ban “a little mind boggling,” adding that the city should seek more information before adopting a moratorium that is, in effect, a policy.

“If we aren’t ready to implement a policy, why pass a resolution that’s acting as a statement on policy?” she asked.

Other council members said they did want to ensure that Berkeley has the option to perhaps borrow a drone in the event of a fire in the hills or to find a missing child, which is why they voted to allow the Fire Department to use the technology even in the short term. Councilwoman Linda Maio pointed out that, when Berkeley came up with its policy related to helicopters, it did carve out certain situations regarding when they could appropriately be used by law enforcement.

Other council members said they want to take it slow until the technology and its ramifications are better understood.

“There’s no rush to do this thing,” said District 3 Councilman Max Anderson. “We need to set up and build some sense of ethics about how these things are used.”

Monday, Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong said he is aware of instances where drones have been used in firefighting efforts, nationwide and in California. Dong said, at this point, the logistics of using the technology are completely hypothetical.

“We don’t even know who has drones or unmanned aerial vehicles available,” he said, adding that most mutual aid agreements to share equipment are coordinated through the Alameda County Fire Department. He said he does not believe that department has a drone, and also clarified that the Fire Department would not likely be able to seek to borrow a drone to help find a missing person, as the vote last week was specific to drone use during disaster response situations.

“Whenever there’s an additional tool that’s available, we’ll look at using that to improve our response or communications,” Dong said. “But, without having that tool, it’s nothing to get excited about for right now.”

The lowdown: Berkeley council on protests, drones, more (02.24.15)
Drone technology in Berkeley may see further study (04.30.14)
Drone battle to come before Berkeley City Council (04.16.14)
Berkeley rejects idea of making city a No Drone Zone (12.19.14)
Berkeley considers becoming a No Drone Zone (12.18.12)
Of course you want to build your own aerial drone (12.12.11)

Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...