City Council to vote on moratorium on city’s potential drone use

Phillip Downey/Staff

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Nearly two weeks after passing a moratorium on local police’s use of tear gas and less-than-lethal weapons, City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to impose a two-year moratorium on the city’s potential use of drones.

The proposal, which would not affect hobbyists, is meant to be a preemptive measure. According to the agenda item, the moratorium would prohibit the city — which has not and does not use drones — from “purchasing drones, … entering into contracts to lease or borrow drones, or … receiving drones as gifts.”

Councilmember Max Anderson said Berkeley Police Department would most likely use any drones if the city were to have them. He added that the moratorium, if passed, would help communicate the council’s support of stricter regulations for law enforcement.

“I think they ought to have not just a two year of moratorium, but a more permanent rejection,” Anderson said. “We need to hold off on arming the police any further.”

The moratorium that would create a Berkeley “No Drone Zone” addresses not just recent community concerns over the drones’ surveillance capabilities but also the noise they create and their susceptibility to crashing, Anderson said. Additionally, he believes permitting the use of drones would make the city vulnerable to future liabilities.

Nationwide, four cities — Charlottesville, Virginia; St. Bonifacius, Minnesota; Evanston, Illinois; and Iowa City, Iowa — have banned drones, with additional cities and at least 31 state governments considering similar legislation.

When Peace and Justice Commission vice chair Robert Meola first introduced the item to City Council in 2012, it proposed a ban throughout the city and designated an area for hobbyists’ recreational use. But City Council referred the item back to the Peace and Justice Commission, Police Review Commission and Fire Safety Justice Commission.

In 2013, after holding a forum to gauge public opinion, the Peace and Justice Commission returned to City Council, arguing that the costs of the city owning drones outweighed any potential benefits, such as assisting police in pursuit of known suspects, finding missing persons, supplementing rescue efforts or aiding response to natural disasters.

Although City Council held a workshop on drone policy in 2014, there was no move to approve laws of any kind, Meola said. The commission then decided to submit another proposal — this time, for a moratorium — last June.

For Meola, the proposed moratorium would merely be a “Band-Aid on this potentially critical wound for two years while (the council) figures out a grand plan.”

If passed, the moratorium would express City Council’s encouragement of California legislators imposing a ban on drones and stricter regulations on law enforcement nationwide, according to the agenda item.

“This is still early enough for Berkeley to take a stand,” Meola said.

Contact Kate Wolffe at [email protected].