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Drones are becoming an ever growing commodity around the world, not just for civilians but for law enforcement as well and at least 160 police and fire departments acquired drones in 2016. This is more than double the number of agencies that obtained unmanned aircraft in 2015. Police and firefighters have discovered a useful new tool in small unmanned aerial drones. Today there are at least 347 agencies in 43 states now flying drones. Sixty-three % of the agencies that attained drones are sheriff or police departments and fire departments account for 20 % of the agencies in the U.S that have drones.
Law enforcement agencies started to use drones more than a decade ago. However, it was just an emerging technology with extremely limited use and they have recently just gotten extremely popular. Now you see more and more police headquarters using them for conducting investigations and more.
The vast majority of public safety drones in use are manufactured by DJI, with an 80 % share of the current deployments, led by the consumer Phantom and Inspire models. DJI has launched a new professional drone platform, the eight-pound M200 (https://www.dji.com/matrice-200-series/applications#m200s-app-s1). The M200 will be sold only though dealers and it is being marketed as a tool for bridge, wind turbine, power line, and oil rig inspections, as well as search and rescue, crop surveys, and construction site mapping.
DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said that public safety has been an early adopter, and it started out with people trying out a lot of different consumer drones. He also said that they counted at least 59 lives that have been saved by people using drones.
DJI has collected “a ton of feedback” from police in Europe and the U.S. on what they need from a drone and the next steps include new software and communications abilities to help police coordinate their drone flights. But, Lisberg also explained that DJI has no plans to design drones with weapons.
You’re probably alert and concerned about your privacy (https://www.droneguru.net/drones-and-privacy-in-the-united-states-in-2016/) as a civilian living in a world where drone use is becoming more common, not only by other civilians but law enforcement as well.
Keep in mind though, that the drones that police use can be used to save lives keep officers safe and help find suspects, like in Indiana last year (https://wane.com/2017/03/16/thermal-imaging-drone-finds-wanted-suspect/) when a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera found a man who fled the scene after crashing his car in a police chase. Also, a sheriff’s office in Maryland used a drone to find $400,000 worth of stolen construction equipment (https://www.cecildaily.com/police_and_fire_beat/article_17f96dfb-1c94-5d8f-9a65-9429a79cf75c.html) just a few months ago. Drones can also find active shooters from the air, much cheaper and more discreetly than using helicopters and they can use surveillance on a completely different level than before. In most law enforcement scenarios, drones are being flown for traffic management or crime-scene photography. They are also used for mass evacuations, hazardous material spills and aerial viewing of fires or tracking fire personnel in dangerous settings. Drones can also be extremely useful in Search and Rescue operations where you might be looking for missing people, children in the woods or wilderness etc.
Drones are an extremely useful technology for the law enforcement agencies. However, the laws around its use are often unclear since the technology is so new.
Do Law Enforcement Agencies Use Drones to Spy?
As a society, we generally want our police to have all of the tools they need to keep the bad guys at bay, but we just want them to use those tools responsibly and without sticking their beaks into ordinary, generally law-abiding citizens’ everyday life. Drones are the latest new toy for police to pose the policing versus privacy problems, but the rise of drones also has privacy hawks concerned about how drones may pull back the curtain on intimate details of our daily lives.
One of the most important benefits of drones is their ability to easily get to places where it would be dangerous or costly for us humans to go, which includes not only high in the air above buildings and trees, but also into active natural disaster areas and ongoing crime scenes. The aerial views that drones capture also make them an attractive tool for surveillance tasks. They can be used for tailing a person of interest in a criminal case or peeking into his or her car or home. That’s where things get a little tricky because the most common questions people ask are one of the two “Can police fly drones at night?” and “Do police use drones to spy?”. The first questions answer isn’t a clear cut yes or no. However, there are a lot of videos going around the internet implying that police drones at night are becoming more common. The first questions answer, according to US News, is yes (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/08/23/docs-law-enforcement-agencies-plan-to-use-domestic-drones-for-surveillance).
Not all law enforcement agencies have access to camera drones, but the ones that do have requested permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (https://www.faa.gov/) to use their drones for “surveillance” purposes.
Typically, police need a warrant or some sort of “exigent circumstances” to search a home and “probable cause” to get inside a car, but only 14 out of the 50 states require law enforcement to get a warrant (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/02/few-privacy-limitations-exist-on-how-police-use-drones/458583/) to use camera drones for surveillance reasons. Those requirements don’t apply to scanning for objects that are in plain view. However, this raised the question of whether police can fly a drone outside a person’s home or vehicle and capture photographs or videos through windows and doors.
Members in the House and Senate proposed bills in the previous Congress requiring all 50 states to require a warrant to do any type of surveillance. However, the bills died out by the end of the year.
According to privacy advocates, drones could be used as a highly-attentive fly on the wall if used in concert with advanced technology like facial recognition software, infrared capabilities and high-powered audio recording devices.
There is little federal law on the books dealing directly with drones, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is concerned generally with public safety, rather than privacy problems, although police outfits have to get approval from the FAA to use the flying machines. That leaves limits on drone use largely a state-by-state matter. Some states want to ban UAVs altogether, while some want to leave the skies open for business.
Police Drones in California
Texas, with 28 departments, and California, with 23 departments are the two states with the highest number of agencies that have acquired drones.
California is also one of the many states that do not require a warrant for surveillance drone use for law enforcement, and that’s why much of what is legal and illegal regarding police drones is still up in the air (https://www.ocregister.com/articles/drones-677472-california-privacy.html) and cannot be determined at this point. However, the California legislature purposed the governor with six bills regarding drones and their use (https://www.hoverlaw.com/category/state/) in 2016. He signed two bills and the other four he vetoed.
This is a news report from KCRA in Sacramento, Calif. on how drones are used by a local police department:
Pros and Cons of Police Drones
Police drone surveillance has become a privacy concern for some of the general public. However, police first started using drones for non-surveillance purposes and generally only used the drones in situations to protect lives and enforce the law.
Police is protecting valuable resources such as police officers time and tax dollars by using camera drones and they have gained more knowledge on certain problems that otherwise would not have been possible without the help of police drones.
Police drone surveillance has a lot of benefits. However, like anything, it also poses some cons.
- Surveillance – Surveillance is extremely time consuming and since surveillance is so extensive, it has the ability to take time out of other important investigations. Staking someone out fully could take weeks to months to do successfully, and also the chances of you getting seen while staking the person out is much higher than law enforcement using a drone.
- Search and Rescue – Search and Rescue missions usually require extensive man power and take a lot of time. The worst thing is that they’re not always successful even with all this. People can only walk so far and cover so much land. Police can comb through more areas faster with the help of drones with cameras. They can also provide themselves with an aerial view of the surrounding landscape which could make the Search and Rescue mission not only go quicker, but also save time and a life.
- Active Shooter – Sometimes, police officers are faced with threats like an active shooter situation and these threats are one of the most serious and are looked at as incredibly dangerous by law enforcement. Active shooters often try to hide from police. This makes it difficult to provide a vantage point on the suspect. Drones provide a great aerial view not only of the shooter, but of the surrounding landscape. This makes it easier for police to move in and take the shooter down.
- Police officers can have an extra backup in the field by using miniature shoulder drones (https://www.policeone.com/police-products/Police-Drones/articles/236698006-Amazon-obtains-patent-for-mini-police-drones/). Amazon recently obtained a patent for a mini police drone that would make it safer for police officers patrolling alone. The mini drone would be extra small since the processor would be located on its docking station and it could run plates, monitor situations and use facial recognition to help the patrolling officers.
- Crowd Monitoring – Large venues such as parades, sporting events and concerts require a lot of manpower to keep crowds under control and safe. Police officers are often spread out and stuck standing around in the venue. They basically just watch the surrounding crowd and not really “see” anything. More area would be covered if video drones are used and they would be able to lock on and zoom in to key areas of interest. It saves police valuable time by having drones accessible during these types of venues.
Privacy – Police drones with camera cause the general public to worry about their overall privacy so there is a lot of controversy stemming from their use. If you’re minding your business in your own backyard and you’re unwillingly caught on tape it can cause quite a scandal.
Security – Whether it’s a regular civilian drone or police drone, they are able to be hacked into (https://www.droneguru.net/drone-hacking-how-safe-is-your-drone/) since they are electronics. Important files or data could be exposed by hacking into a drone, especially a law enforcement one. This could cause the drone to malfunction which is incredibly dangerous, especially when being flown.
Aerial Disturbance/Crashes – Drones can crash even with the most skilled pilot. This could cause a disturbance to other aircraft in the sky or cause a lot of damage to the surrounding area.
Public Perception – Law enforcement trust have come into question in the past few years and Now more than ever law enforcement is under massive scrutiny by the public so using drones could possibly make this situation worse. Lots of things have made headlines about officers being unfair or just bad people in general.
Drones are an exciting technology and they are being used in a range of industries, including photography, farming, archaeology, engineering, filmmaking, journalism, and many other areas.
Law enforcement also stands to benefit from drone technology and drones can play a valuable role when police are searching for a suspect or missing person, covering areas of treacherous terrain faster than police officers on foot. However, the risk of intrusive surveillance grows and continued vigilance will be necessary as drone technology continues to improve. If the right case emerges, the Supreme Court can revisit aerial surveillance. However, until it does, it’s up to the states to pass drone policies that protect privacy while increasing police transparency and accountability.
These policies should not only address familiar problems associated with searches, such as video recording and warrant requirements, but also relatively new concerns involving surveillance technology, biometric software and weaponization. Police drones can serve legitimate law enforcement goals without becoming tools of unnecessary and intrusive surveillance with the right controls in place.