LBPD Drone Program Lacks Rules

Greg Buhl, CheckLBPD

The Case for a Surveillance Transparency Ordinance

Over the last 15 years the Long Beach Police Department has adopted surveillance technologies as quickly as they become commercially available. These include automated license plate readers, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), cell phone signal interceptors, facial recognition databases, cell phone unlocking tools, social media monitoring software, advanced infrared vehicle-mounted cameras and a city-wide network of public and private cameras.

In our last issue we examined how the LBPD, assisted by the city attorney, launched a drone program in 2017 – without public disclosure, outside oversight or even a written policy to guide personnel on safety issues and the constitutional application of surveillance equipment.

The LBPD has adopted secrecy as its default position for surveillance technologies. Transparency, written policy and civilian oversight are adopted only when forced by state law or outside forces – like public records requests and media disclosures.

Using public records requests CheckLBPD determined the LBPD was operating drones without a policy. LBPD began drafting a drone policy only after it became aware of the impending disclosure of this information.

A similar response occurred last year when CheckLBPD uncovered that the LBPD had used facial recognition technology for ten years. The department only took small steps toward ending the worst aspects of this program – which still operates without policy guidance that would reduce the likelihood of wrongful arrest or unconstitutional use.

The department used Vigilant Solutions’ automated license plate readers (ALPRs), cell phone interception technology (Stingray) and cell phone unlocking technology from Cellebrite without oversight, transparency, or policy until it was forced on them by law (Senate Bills 34, 741 and 178 respectively).

The LBPD relied on a corporation instead of involving the community and its elected representatives when drafting the policies necessary to comply with the three senate bills that went into effect in 2016.

From mid-2014 through 2015 the LBPD spent $33,000 with Lexipol, a policy-drafting company criticized for enabling incidents of excessive force and helping the officers who commit them go unpunished.

Relying on a corporation to draft police policy eliminates the community from the process and creates a disconnect between the department and its own policies.

It is yet to be seen whether the LBPD’s new drone consultant, hired to evaluate “community concerns,” will be any different. So far, the process continues to be hidden from the public.

Police Drone Policy Options

Cities across the country have considered a wide range of drone policies during public debates. From total bans, to wide-spread use of police drones, or a middle ground with drone use limited to SWAT standoffs and specified emergencies.

According to Mohammad Tajsar of the ACLU of Southern California, “Adding unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles to an already bloated policing arsenal is dangerous, damaging and a detriment to public safety. History teaches us that whatever the promise of new technologies is, police departments will exploit them to further expand their power.”

Tajsar added, “Instead of spending precious public resources and time with shiny new objects, city leaders should divert funds away from policing and into life-affirming services desperately needed for residents of Long Beach as we pull ourselves out of a devastating public health and economic crisis.”

When Culver City and Los Angeles started drone programs the ACLU sent letters criticizing their policies for lacking “meaningful safeguards to prevent dragnet and discriminatory surveillance.”

The ACLU of Southern California, which opposes all police drone use, identified policy inadequacies related to audits of drone use, data sharing and data retention absent the reasonable suspicion of a crime. The use of weapons, thermal imaging and facial recognition on any drones were also identified as being problematic.

One ACLU recommendation Long Beach would not be able to implement without a Charter change is independent civilian authority oversight over all police surveillance technology policy.

Chula Vista is currently engaged in a first-in-the-nation experiment where drones are being deployed to most 9-11 calls, even reports of people sleeping on the sidewalk.

Chula Vista’s program is highly-documented with the flight data available online, including the reason for deployment and a flight map.

The LBPD has not responded to CPRA requests for drone data, including video recorded during last summer‘s protests.

On May 27 the Beachcomber emailed Chief Luna’s spokesperson nine questions on drone policy and use, including the May 31-June 1 civil disturbances.

Luna’s spokesperson responded on June 9 that, “The department declines to comment at this time.”

Solution to Lack of Transparency

Santa Clara County passed their “Surveillance Technology and Community Safety Ordinance” in 2016 – the first in the nation. It has four elements: 1) informed public debate at the earliest possible stage, 2) oversight commission determination that the benefits outweigh concerns, 3) use policy approved by oversight commission and 4) annual accountability reports.

Since Santa Clara took the lead, 16 municipalities and one transit system have adopted their own version of a Surveillance Transparency/Oversight Ordinance.

The ACLU’s “Community Control Over Police Surveillance” (CCOPS) model bill has all four elements of the Santa Clara ordinance. The model bill covers grant purchases, equipment donations, free software and ensures surveillance gear is only used for the purpose for which it was originally approved

Free trials are how the LBPD accessed Vigilant Solutions’ FaceSearch for two and half years, as well as Clearview AI’s database of three billion images.

Clearview is facing bans globally for unethical behavior – such as illegal data scraping, breaking state laws to collect images of minors and tracking LBGTQ communities for goverments that still criminalize homosexuality.

After CheckLBPD uncovered the use of Clearview AI and FaceSearch, Deputy Chief Herzog issued a September 2020 Watch Report that stated officers were not allowed to use free trials of facial recognition programs for investigative purposes.

A public audit requirement in a Surveillance Transparency Ordinance would provide the people and their representatives an opportunity to address problems before they occur.

The current system Long Beach uses for approval of surveillance technology is based on cost and source of funding, rather than concern for constitutional rights or privacy concerns. It allows purchases of up to $500,000 to occur with no elected representatives involved as long as the department is using Homeland Security grant money.

This lapse of oversight allowed the department to purchase a Stingray cell phone signal interceptor for $466,380 in 2013 with only city manager approval. Emails obtained as public records show that both the LBPD and city employees involved in the purchase were concerned with avoiding the City Council-approval threshold during price negotiations.

Other Ongoing LBPD Surveillance Policy Concerns

The LBPD has had repeated problems with its automated license plate reader (ALPR) program, while failing to conduct annual audits as required under LBPD policy enacted to comply with SB 54.

In an August 2020 Beachcomber article, “LBPD Dragnet Snags the Innocent,” Stephen Downing investigated how the LBPD wrongly flagged the license plates of two innocent protestors from a Black Lives Matter protest as potentially armed felons – leading to traumatic and potentially deadly encounters with police in other jurisdictions.

I wrote a sidebar for that piece examining the LBPD ALPR capabilities and included a warning about the LBPD’s practice of sharing data with Homeland Security agencies that cooperated with ICE as a Values Act violation.

Sharing local data with ICE has been a long-running problem at the LBPD. The Electronic Frontier Foundation uncovered that someone with managerial access to the LBPD’s ALPR system created accounts for ICE and CBP officers in 2016.

These accounts were used to run 850 searches in the year before the enactments of the California Values Act (SB 54) and the Long Beach Values Acts, which protect non-criminal immigrants from administrative deportations.

In July 2019, after an ICE raid in Long Beach, Mayor Robert Garcia issued statements (in English and Spanish) that “The Police Department will not cooperate with ICE in civil immigration arrests and enforcement operations and that the federal organization does not have access to LBPD’s internal data.”

Seven months later the LBPD added ICE as a direct data sharing partner on the Vigilant Solutions’ ALPR database in violation of both the Long Beach and California Values Acts.

If the ALPR system underwent periodic audits the city could have easily caught this improper data sharing.

Instead the illegal data sharing was uncovered by CheckLBPD – through a public records request filed to uncover which ALPR “hot list” was used to target protestors. FORTHE then published an article relying on the document in November 2020.

The public revelation caused the LBPD to immediately stop data sharing with ICE. However, it did not stop the City Council from approving $400,000 worth of new Vigilant Solutions ALPRs for the city, which will double the 25 million vehicles photographed by ALPRs in Long Beach annually.

When the illegal LBPD ICE data sharing was uncovered, the LBPD shifted the blame to an error by a private intelligence contractor using a “group approval” feature.

However, the ALPR software manual and a screenshot of the system interface obtained from the LBPD through public records requests show the excuse offered by the LBPD was not technically possible.

Vigilant Solutions only has a group approval feature for offers to share data; requests for ALPR data require checking a box approving each requesting agency individually.

The department also wrongly implied that ICE could not link people to their license plate number, while ignoring the role of another LBPD vendor.

LexisNexis has multi-million dollar contracts with both the California DMV and ICE under which our data is sold to ICE, unless one has filed a California Consumer Privacy Act request to make LexisNexis delete their data.

Despite the LBPD’s internal review failing to examine improper training and oversight as the cause of the LBPD’s ICE data sharing, within hours of the LBPD announcing they had identified and solved the problem the mayor’s office publicly concurred with the finding.

A mayoral spokesperson praised Chief Luna for solving the problem, stating, “the mayor and the City Council have made it clear that the LBPD may not share civil immigration information with ICE. The chief fixed this error a month ago and is working to ensure privacy and alignment with SB54 and the Long Beach Values Act.”

Stephen Downing’s April 22, 2021, Beachcomber article covers how the LBPD’s sharing of ALPR data with ICE for 10 months caught the attention of the ACLU.

After examining the LBPD’s remaining 600+ data sharing partners, the ACLU sent the city attorney’s office a demand letter to end all out-of-state data sharing as a violation of Senate Bill 34 (California’s ALPR law).

The city has yet to publicly reply to the ACLU demand letter and its novel legal argument that requires the LBPD to end all out-of-state ALPR data sharing.

Surveillance Expansion Hiding on the Consent Calendar

Five months after approving $400,000 for new ALPRs without public debate, the City Council approved a new contract for General Dynamics intelligence analysts through the consent calendar process.

On April 6, 2020, without any discussion of costs and benefits, the council approved a new $379,000 annual contract with General Dynamics. The consent calendar item allows the city manager to renew the contract annually for the next five years without council approval.

Later in the month CheckLBPD uncovered that it was a General Dynamics contractor, with a long history of Federal employment and previous training with ICE, who added ICE as an LBPD data sharing partner.

LBPD leadership would have known this information for months before the contract renewal was recommended. City Council approval without full disclosure and public discussion have become a pattern and practice.

The City Council has approved up to $7,185 worth of drone operation insurance in 2019 on the advice of the city manager without asking questions about what drones it covered or if the drone program had any policy to prevent unconstitutional use of the technology.

The council renewed the drone insurance on June 15. If the city had a Surveillance Transparency Ordinance the council members might known more about what they were approving.

Changes in Technology Demand Changes in Policy and Oversight

The LBPD has run over 4,000 facial recognition searches in the last decade, including 2,800 last year, all without a policy to protect against misuse and constitutional violations.

When facial recognition goes wrong it sends officers to confront innocent people – armed with guns and over-confidence in a flawed algorithm. This is why groups like the ACLU and Data for Black Lives oppose the technology.

Many jurisdictions, such as Santa Cruz, Minneapolis and Detroit, have banned or restricted the use of facial recognition technology by police after multiple Black men were wrongfully arrested based on false matches.

LBPD officers still use LACRIS, the Los Angeles County Regional Identification Service run by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. LACRIS strongly recommends local departments adopt a facial recognition policy and even posts a template with the bare minimum of Constitutional protections any policy should contain.

In August 2020, the city’s Framework on Reconciliation Initial Report listed “explore the practice of facial recognition” as a medium-term, two-year goal and there was no indication they knew of the active LBPD program. Other goals like examining the “metrics currently used for officer success and promotion” and renaming parks were ranked as more urgent priorities.

In November 2020 CheckLBPD’s technical report uncovered the LBPD facial recognition program, with FORTHE publishing an article on the topic the next month.

Emails sent by CheckLBPD to the Framework managers ahead of the last meeting and comments lodged at that December meeting requesting facial recognition be reprioritized did not receive a response.

If the Framework was unaware of the facial recognition program, LBPD lack of transparency is to blame. LBPD responses available on MuckRock’s public records portal show three separate untrue responses on facial recognition and Stingray use dating back to 2018.

Long Beach’s surveillance problems require a two-part solution: 1) enact a Surveillance Transparency Ordinance and 2) create a civilian commission to approve and oversee LBPD policy.

At present, there is no policy and no independent oversight of the Big Brother surveillance capabilities of the LBPD.

Greg Buhl is a Long Beach resident, attorney and lead researcher at

Follow the CheckLBPD project on Instagram or Twitter @CheckLBPD for updates on LBPD surveillance technology issues.



Jaw-dropping, vein-popping, fuse-blowing. We're slowly creeping into police state territory, being led by the hand of a smooth-talking Kraken dressed as a charismatic mayor. With "progressives" like that, who needs fascists?

This piece on the Los Angeles Port’s development and use of drone policy is an example of how it should be done and how it is never done in Long Beach:

LBPD failure to follow the law is either Gross Incompetents by LPBD chief Luna or Gross Corruption, I go with Corruption, because I cant believe that the city would allow such an incompetent person run the LBPD. Yet again it is the LBC LOL....Why comply with the law when your corrupt behavior is backed up by the city attorney office with our tax dollars. SMH LB is the only city where there is no accountability for corruption, what a joke of a city and its corrupt PD.

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