Police Drones Take Off—At what Impact to Motorists?: NMA E-Newsletter #485

Traffic stops are often one of the most dangerous situations for law enforcement (not to mention for motorists as many recent events have proven).

The unknown can escalate a situation beyond safe. Police departments are now turning to drones to help alleviate some of the danger involved. Under tight regulations, drones can indeed become a helpful safety device for police. Drones could also become another automated traffic enforcement device that could plague law abiding motorists.

Currently, police drone regulations are all over the map. There are currently no laws regulating their use by federal law enforcement. Fewer than half the states have passed legislation that address privacy concerns. Intense public scrutiny can also scuttle new police drone programs.

According to the Drive.com, there are six primary situations police would like to use drones:

·    Search and Rescue
·    Traffic Collision Reconstruction
·    Investigate Active Shooter/Suspects
·    Crime Scene Analysis
·    Surveillance
·    Crowd Monitoring

Here are some specific ways a police departments could use drones.

*An officer stops a vehicle for a traffic infraction. Before approaching the driver, he or she deploys a shoulder mounted drone (Amazon just patented one variety) that flies around the car giving video feedback to the officer. The officer would then be able to ascertain how many people are in the car and what they are doing with their hands. If the drone is fitted with facial recognition, the officer would also be able to tell who is in the car.

*A drone could also be used as an eye in the sky above the scene of a traffic stop or crime scene to serve as a video witness to the interaction of police with the motorist and passengers.

*Fast pursuits may be fun to watch in movies, but in reality they are dangerous for anyone on the road that day. If a suspect flees a traffic stop, an accident or a crime, an officer at the scene could give a vehicle description to the drone pilot who would then deploy the drone, find and then follow the suspect’s vehicle while the pilot reports back to the team on the ground. Then officers could make a planned approach to the vehicle that hopefully keeps everyone safe.

*Using a drone during traffic accident reconstruction could also be a time saver for police departments. This would allow less time for road or lane closures for motorists.

*Already in China, India and Russia, drones are used to monitor traffic violations on highways. This includes speeding, driving in the wrong lane, illegal parking and throwing trash out the window. This is called tech-enhanced policing which is another form of automated traffic enforcement.

In an April 2017 report from The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, there was one key takeaway: at least 347 state and local police departments, county sheriffs, fire departments and emergency units have acquired drones. (Click here for the report along with a map of localities.) Police departments lead the charge with more drone acquisitions having taken place in 2016 than in all previous years combined.

The game changed last August. Up until that time, federal law permitted only licensed pilots to operate drones for commercial and police use. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration lowered the pilot license requirement and now potential drone pilots need to pass a detailed test on how to operate a drone and understand air-space-use regulations. Currently, many more officers are training on one of the newest gadgets in the law enforcement tool kit.

In Tazewell County, Illinois, Sheriff Chief Deputy Jeff Lower said recently his department purchased three drones in the last year. One has thermal imaging to help find people in search and rescue operations. Another has software that allows the department to create scale-model, 3D replicas of vehicle accident scenes. Lower says before it took two hours to map a crash scene with traditional survey equipment. Now, he says, “It takes us 20 minutes with a drone, significantly reducing road closure time at accident sites.”

In January, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the nation’s third largest police force overseeing 500 square miles with four million residents, received a donation from the LA Police Foundation to purchase four drones.  Two of them are the “Phantom” model for traffic stops and pursuits. The LAPD crafted careful restrictions with citizen input last fall. Restrictions apply to drone deployment and program oversight. Facial recognition technology and installed weapons will be prohibited.

No doubt, having a small drone buzz around your car during an already scary situation of a traffic stop would be disconcerting for most drivers and passengers. The small drone’s images, however, could be useful in police misconduct investigations. Civil liberties though might be challenged if the drone enters the car or has thermal imaging.

In 2012, the International Association of Chiefs of Police published a list of recommended guidelines for use of Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAVs or drones) in law enforcement.  These guidelines were endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

·    Police should obtain warrants in order to use drones if subjects have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
·    Unless relevant to a crime, images captured by drones should not be retained by police.
·    Departments should give the public substantial notice of drone use in the course of their police work and how the drones will be used.
·    Police drone programs should be tracked and audited for accountability and transparency.
·    Drones should never be weaponized by police.

The establishment of drone regulations lags far behind the fast pace of drone use by police. Congress, state legislatures, local police departments and county sheriffs need to be proactive to ensure right of privacy and in which situations drones can and should be used.

If not, motorists will find themselves in more “Policing for Profit” situations that have the added bonus of intrusive surveillance technology.

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