Recently, I attended a Founder’s Day parade where the county sheriff’s office flew its unmanned aerial vehicle above one of its patrol vehicles as they traveled along the parade route.
It was a large and impressive aircraft, and I marveled at how much technology helps law enforcement keep communities safe. Then I heard some other people talking about the aircraft. One commented that it was just another way for the police to violate peoples’ privacy. Another predicted the police would someday mount weapons on the aircraft to use against citizens.
I rolled my eyes and started to dismiss the comments, thinking that these folks had no clue about how law enforcement uses unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to benefit the communities they serve. But then I reconsidered. If these citizens had those concerns, then others likely do, too. And I believe agencies can reduce such fears by educating the public on the benefits of UAS use and implementing sound policies and procedures for deploying the technology in a way that respects individual privacy rights and reduces the risks of injuring people.
What Is a UAS?
When I use the term UAS, I refer to any unmanned aircraft capable of sustaining directed flight, whether preprogrammed or remotely controlled and its associated piloting systems and information-gathering tools such as imaging and recording devices. Other terms commonly used to refer to these systems include unmanned aerial vehicles and drones.
A drone can be an excellent resource for law enforcement agencies. Some of the uses for this technology include search and rescue, fire ground or hazardous material site observation, crime or accident scene investigation, fugitive arrests, water or dive rescue operations, disaster damage inspection and officer safety activities. Police drones have even been used to fly into buildings and other structures to learn the status of barricaded subjects.
Law enforcement leaders must remember that while an unmanned aerial system may benefit the community, some citizens see these systems as a threat to their privacy and safety.
Some agencies have full-time drone pilots that can deploy a drone from a fixed location, such as the roof of the police department, to scenes that are apt to be dangerous, like a man with a gun call. The police can use the drone to assess the safety of the scene before officers arrive. There are even UAS that can fit inside a vehicle glovebox to be available for quick deployment.
While the use of drones in law enforcement may be beneficial, it is essential to remember that the public values its privacy and well-being, and any governmental UAS use must follow the laws that protect constitutional rights and advance public safety. Law enforcement agencies should have solid policies in place to ensure the proper operation of their UAS program. The following are some considerations for agencies that are developing policy and procedures for their UAS programs.
1. Assign a UAS coordinator. The setup and operation of a law enforcement UAS program are strictly controlled by federal laws and regulations and by state and local laws in some areas. Keeping up with legal and regulatory changes and technology advancements related to UAS is a complex challenge that requires capable coordination by the right person. Agency leadership should delegate someone with excellent organizational skills, UAS expertise and a passion for UAS operations to manage their drone program.
2. Include stakeholders early on. Agency leadership can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the UAS policy development process through the early involvement of appropriate stakeholders. These are people who can readily discuss systems and concerns and reach conclusions on sound policy guidance that will meet the community’s public safety needs while respecting its citizens’ rights.
Administrative decision-makers and advisers, such as agency senior leadership, risk managers and the agency UAS coordinator, should be involved early on in UAS policy development. Policy developers should also engage the agency’s legal counsel at the outset of the process to ensure that policies and procedures contain proper legal guidance for using the UAS in the agency’s jurisdiction.
Finally, developers should include agency-community liaisons, such as local government council or commission members, legislative representatives, or community leaders who can provide a public perspective to the policy development process to increase the likelihood of success and acceptance of the program within the community.
3. Use both policy and procedures to guide UAS use. Some aspects of UAS operation are highly regulated or established industry best practices, and policy should include reference to mandates and guidance on these aspects to ensure safe, legal, and successful operations.
Other facets of UAS operation allow more discretion in implementation and practice. These items should be covered in procedures since they are typically more flexible than policy and can be changed by authorized personnel without a complex policy review and approval process.
So, what guidance should be included in policy, and what guidance should be included in procedures?
Police Drone Policy Content
1. UAS coordinator authority and responsibilities. An agency’s UAS policy should delegate appropriate authority to the UAS coordinator to allow them to manage the police drone program, develop program procedures, and ensure that policies and procedures conform to current laws, regulations, and best practices. The policy should make the UAS coordinator responsible for managing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight authorization application process and ensuring that flight authorizations remain current.
The coordinator should also make sure that all authorized UAS operators and required observers have completed all required FAA and agency-approved training in the operation, applicable laws, policies and procedures regarding the use of the UAS.
An agency’s UAS policy must clearly state that the UAS will not be weaponized.
Additional duties of the UAS coordinator should include recommending program enhancements, especially regarding safety and information security, and ensuring that the program follows established policy and procedures.
2. Privacy considerations. UAS policy must communicate the importance of respecting individual privacy and require UAS operations to adhere to constitutional privacy rights and FAA regulations.
Policy should also prohibit the intentional recording or transmission of images of any location where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy unless there are exigent circumstances, or the agency has a warrant for the activity.
Policy should mandate that operators and observers take reasonable precautions to avoid inadvertently recording or transmitting images of areas with a reasonable expectation of privacy. An example of a reasonable precaution is deactivating or turning imaging devices away from such locations or persons during UAS operations.
3. Use of UAS. A police department’s drone policy should mandate that UAS deployment follow applicable laws and regulations and be authorized by the agency head or other authorized designee, depending on the type of mission. Policy should also note that only authorized operators who have completed the required training are permitted to operate the UAS.
Policy should also state that using vision enhancement technology such as thermal and other imaging equipment not generally available to the public is only permissible when viewing areas with no protectable privacy interest, when in compliance with a search warrant or court order, or in consultation with legal counsel.
The policy should also prohibit using the UAS to:
- Conduct random surveillance activities.
- Target a person based solely on actual or perceived protected characteristics such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, economic status, age, cultural group, or disability.
- Harass, intimidate, or discriminate against any individual or group.
- Conduct personal business of any type.
4. Weaponization. An agency’s UAS policy must clearly state that the UAS will not be weaponized.
5. Accountability. UAS policy should include directives that fulfill any state UAS use reporting mandates. The policy should note that the UAS coordinator is responsible for monitoring UAS operations to ensure that established policy and procedures are followed and providing periodic program reports to the agency head.
6. Data retention. The policy should require the agency to manage UAS-collected data in accordance with applicable retention laws or other appropriate record retention schedules.
Police Drone Procedures
UAS policy should require the UAS coordinator to develop, implement and update procedures for the following activities:
- Submission and evaluation of any UAS deployment requests.
- Using the UAS to conduct criminal investigations, including documentation of time spent monitoring a subject.
- Deployment and operation of a UAS, including but not limited to safety oversight, use of visual observers, the establishment of lost link procedures, and secure communication with air traffic control facilities.
- Complete documentation of all missions.
- Inspection, maintenance, and record-keeping measures to ensure the continued airworthiness of UAS equipment, including overhaul or life limits.
- Handling all evidentiary UAS data in a manner that ensures its integrity as evidence.
- Complying with data retention and purge requirements established by records retention schedules.
- Facilitating law enforcement access to images and data captured by the UAS.
Law enforcement leaders must remember that while an unmanned aerial system may benefit the community, some citizens see these systems as a threat to their privacy and safety. Therefore, law enforcement agencies considering a police drone program should consult with the appropriate stakeholders to develop policies and procedures that will strengthen the program’s effectiveness and communicate the agency’s commitment to respect individual privacy rights while using the technology to keep the public safe.