Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department apprehensive about the drone age

Detection program aimed at ferreting out unmanned smugglers dropped for legal reasons—and lack of a problem

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 22, 2016, issue.

It was a potential security breach that jail officials described in immediate terms: Unmanned drones with the ability to airdrop drugs, small weapons, cellphones and other contraband to inmates held within Sacramento County correctional facilities.

Reacting swiftly to a request from the sheriff’s department, which operates the two local jails and highlighted the security concern, the board of supervisors approved a drone-detection pilot program on December 6.

Three days later, in an unusual 11th hour twist, the sheriff’s department spiked it.

What gives? A lack of clarity over electronic surveillance laws and how they relate to emergent drone technology, according to sheriff’s Capt. Darin Griem, commander of the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.

Supervisors initially granted the law enforcement agency’s request to enter into a cost-free memorandum of understanding with SkySafe Inc., which was offering to test its drone-detection technology at RCCC, the county’s primary custodial facility. Contacted by SN&R, sheriff’s spokeswoman Sharon Chow was the first to confirm that the program, while approved by supervisors during a procedural vote, would not move forward after all.

Initially, Chow said that the program had been deemed unnecessary. It turned out the agency had put the cart before the horse, signing onto a solution without an actual problem. There had been no actual smuggling or spying breaches involving unmanned aerial vehicles, Chow explained. The sheriff’s department was acting preemptively.

The staff report accompanying the agreement seemed to contradict this: “The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department is aware of one incident of a drone operating near the Main jail and another possible incident at RCCC,” the report states. “The need for reliable drone detection is essential in combating this growing problem.”

Turns out that wording may have been too strong. Griem said that, while a drone was spotted flying near the main jail downtown on one occasion, it wasn’t actually thought to have perpetrated any illegal activity. “We’ve never seen it, we’ve never discovered anything that was dropped [into a correctional facility],” he added.

Likewise, sheriff’s administrative services officer Suzanne Deloy, who was listed as the contact person on the staff report, was unable to confirm whether drones had infiltrated the jails. “Drones are out there,” Deloy said. “I’m not sure of incidents or how many incidents, but there are drones out there. I just can’t confirm anything on where they’re spotted.”

But the SkySafe request wasn’t rescinded because a lack of a problem. It was pulled for legal reasons.

Griem told SN&R that an unspecified attorney had advised his undersheriff that California Penal Code 1546.1, better known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, might conflict with allowing the SkySafe program. According to Griem, SkySafe’s lawyers disagreed with that assessment, but the advice Griem received was strong enough to prompt him to stop the pilot program from advancing—for now.

Griem remains convinced smuggler drones will soon be coming to a penitentiary near him. “We know the potential exists,” he said.

And the captain believes that the legal confusion, regarding a relatively new technology, will soon be resolved. “Once the laws are worked out … you’ll probably see it at every prison,” Griem said. “I think this company [SkySafe] is on the forefront.”

Be that as it may, it’s unusual for county agencies to cancel agreements after they’ve gone through the process of getting political approval. For this agreement, a full six-page draft memorandum of understanding was prepared along with a 10-page authorization form submitted to supervisors, who unanimously adopted it along with the bulk of their December 6 consent calendar.

This, all for a problem that, apparently, doesn’t yet exist.