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An unmanned drone piloted by James Hill president of Aircover Integrated Solutions comes in for a landing during a demonstration in Dublin, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. The Alameda County Sheriff's Office was taking a look at the drone for possible use in its Urban Shield Program. (Anda Chu/Staff Archives)

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern on Thursday will make another pitch for spending $31,646 on an unmanned aircraft ¿capable of monitoring vast areas of hard-to-reach land.

Draft policy guidelines released last week in a directive by the sheriff would allow the agency to use the drone for missions involving crime scene documentation; explosives; hazardous spills; search and rescue; hostage situations; fleeing suspects; high-risk warrants; disasters; and, at the request of fire authorities, fire response and prevention.

The policy would also allow the sheriff to use a drone for less-specific situations when deputies have probable cause to believe a felony happened or is happening, or if they have a search warrant.

The agency has not submitted an application, called a certificate of authorization, to the FAA, which will have 60 days to decide on whether to allow the deployment. But sheriff only needs the consent of county supervisors to purchase the unit. Ahern already has an anti-terrorism grant from the California Emergency Management Agency to pay for it.

The board delayed giving their consent in December under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation and sent the matter back to the Public Protection Committee.

Ahern responded by including guidelines that would "minimize the inadvertent collection of data about uninvolved persons or places" and setting up a website for public input to address concerns and recommendations. In addition, the drone would be unarmed.

ACLU lawyer Linda Lye commended Ahern for recognizing the importance of a transparent and public process. But she said the ACLU still has "grave concerns" about the lack of specific and enforceable privacy safeguards in Ahern's general order directive, which can be altered by the sheriff without supervisors' oversight.

The ACLU is advocating for rules that limit the purposes for which the drone can be deployed and restricts how the data collected can be used. Nothing in the general order prevents the sheriff from using data collected during a search-and-rescue mission for a different purpose, Lye said.

The program would be evaluated a year after the agency receives FAA authorization but nothing stops the county from renewing the program even if the drones have not delivered on the industry's promises and privacy protections prove inadequate.

The devil is in the details, Lye said. "We have to ask hard questions."

One of those details that remain unanswered has to do with mutual aid and sharing with other agencies. No enforceable rules exist to control when and how the sheriff's office would use a drone in cities within the county (the sheriff polices unincorporated areas including all or parts of Ashland, Castro Valley, Cherryland, Fairview, Sunol and San Lorenzo).

Many of Alameda County's police chiefs, whose sworn forces have not kept pace with the population, are eager to have access to the drone as a "force multiplier" without having to pay for one out of their own tight budgets.

They, too, recognized the need for community buy-in to avoid controversy.

"Coming to that balance is important," said San Leandro police Chief Sandra Spagnoli, echoing some of her local colleagues.

The Oakland Police Department has no plans to use or acquire a drone, police Sgt. Chris Bolton said.

"We are very aware of and understand the associated privacy concerns," he said. "Those concerns deserve to be addressed."

Only Berkeley's City Council has aired the issue publicly, stopping short of rejecting the use of a drone.

Berkeley police Chief Michael Meehan said he was under the impression that the technology would not be used for surveillance.

"The Berkeley City Council referred the issue to several city commissions to help craft a reasonable policy," he said.

If you go
What: Alameda County Public Protection Committee Meeting
When: 1 p.m. Thursday
Where: Alameda County Administration Building, 1221 Oak Street, Fifth Floor, Oakland
Info: www.acgov.org. To view Alameda County Sheriff Office's general order about the drone, go to http://bit.ly/VRl3pA