BERKELEY -- The City Council rejected a ban on surveillance drones Tuesday night over concerns they could be useful in crime fighting and during a disaster to locate fire or earthquake victims.
"The intent is not to say we are a No Drone Zone, but we should express our concern about the proliferation of drones and allow them in limited circumstances that can be beneficial in public safety," said Councilman Jesse Arreguin as he proposed an alternative to the proposal before him.
The proposal by the city's Peace and Justice Commission banning any law enforcement agency from buying or using a drone and for anyone besides hobbyists to fly them in Berkeley, was sent back for further review to three City Council advisory commissions and a "future" City Council work session. No time line was discussed on when the item might return to the council.
The council directed those commissions, by a 7-1 vote with Mayor Tom Bates absent, to consider language discouraging surveillance, but allowing police to use them to pursue suspects and to locate missing persons.
The issue became a local hot topic two weeks ago when the Alameda County Board of Supervisors tabled a proposal by the county sheriff to buy a surveillance drone. That proposal came under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation who worried about privacy rights violations. No representatives of either group spoke at the Berkeley meeting Tuesday
The council also voted unanimously to send a letter to Alameda County and its sheriff's office asking them not to take any action regarding drones until Berkeley resolves its drone issue.
Nationwide, the use of drones by law enforcement is growing. The Department of Homeland Security uses them to fly over domestic ports and the nation's borders. The FBI also uses them domestically. The FAA, which gives two-year certificates to fly drones weighing up to 25 pounds below 400 feet, said 12 law enforcement agencies in eight states obtained licenses to use them from 2006 through 2011. And in 2012, 7 percent of the applications to fly them nationwide came from law enforcement agencies, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.
Although most Berkeley council members said they were troubled by the prospect of unmanned aircraft being used to spy on residents without their consent, they also said they could be used for good.
"Drones have been used for very bad purposes, but drones can serve a purpose," said Councilman Laurie Capitelli. "I would like to see further review of this resolution, but with a broader list of instances in which drones can be used."
Bob Meola, the author of the Peace and Justice Commission proposal to ban drones in Berkeley, held his ground under a barrage of questions about the beneficial use of drones from Capitelli.
"They present a grave danger to liberties and the right to privacy," Meola said. "Surveillance technology is way out ahead of protections for privacy."
About 15 people at the meeting spoke during public comment against the use of drones, citing the potential for abuses by police, and none spoke in favor.
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.