5 steps toward achieving community support for police UAS programs

While drone technology can provide immeasurable benefits, it has the potential to drive a wedge between police and the community


Editor's note: Law enforcement agencies nationwide are adopting unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – also known as drones – for operations as diverse as search and rescue, traffic accident reconstruction and SWAT response. PoliceOne’s special coverage series – 2018 Guide to Drones in Law Enforcement – takes an in-depth look at considerations for police departments looking to implement a UAS program.

By Police Foundation

Protestors show their opposition to the LAPD getting drones on Aug. 8, 2017 in Los Angeles. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Protestors show their opposition to the LAPD getting drones on Aug. 8, 2017 in Los Angeles. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Technology is rapidly changing the face of policing today. One new technology is the unmanned aircraft system (UAS), a portable and easy-to-learn technology of increasing interest to law enforcement because of its potential to improve operational efficiency, as well as officer and community safety.

However, there is public concern about the potential for an invasion of privacy. While the UAS can provide immeasurable benefits, it also has the potential to drive a wedge between police and the community.

To avoid these risks, law enforcement agencies considering adopting a UAS should engage their communities in the decision to implement a program. Here are five steps police leaders should take as part of that process:

1. UNDERSTAND THE TECHNOLOGY AND CONCERNS ABOUT ITS USE

Law enforcement agencies considering deploying UAS must understand:

  • The technology;
  • The benefits to public and officer safety;
  • The legal limitations on its use;
  • The regulatory environment in which it will operate;
  • Privacy laws and expectations.

Some of the most important considerations are the needs, fears and concerns of the community regarding potential police surveillance of citizens.

2. EMBRACE COMMUNITY POLICING PHILOSOPHIES WHEN ADOPTING NEW TECHNOLOGIES

Community policing embodies trust and mutual respect between police and the communities they serve as critical to public safety. It promotes organizational strategies that support the systemic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime.

When considering implementation of new, potentially controversial technology, it is important for police departments to rely on these practices, and engage the community in the process of deciding whether to implement or not.

3. DEVELOP POLICIES AND PROCEDURES FOR YOUR UAS PROGRAM

As with implementation of any new technology, developing and vetting detailed UAS policies and procedures is critical.

Departmental UAS policy should:

  • Clearly define how personnel are permitted to use UAS technology;
  • Allay public fears of loss of privacy;
  • Assure legal and ethical use of the technology;
  • Provide a vehicle for accountability.

Share the draft of the policies and procedures with the community and accept their input where appropriate.

4. ENGAGE THE COMMUNITY IN CONVERSATION

A community engagement plan should be one of the first and most important elements of UAS program development.

Create opportunities to gain input from the community and explain how you will protect privacy and maintain safety. Partnerships with the media are a beneficial strategy for raising public awareness of the UAS program. Unwavering transparency, collaboration, proactive continued engagement, outreach and trust are essential to community understanding, acceptance and support.

5. IMPLEMENT MEASURES FOR ENSURING ACCOUNTABILITY

Accountability will assure your community that your department will use UAS in accordance with properly developed policies and procedures and is essential to obtaining and maintaining community support. The community must have confidence that complaints, or audits that reveal possible violations are thoroughly investigated and misuse is addressed. Accountability must be ensured at all levels, including sworn and civilian employees, contractors, subcontractors, and volunteers.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON UAS IN LAW ENFORCMENT

The Police Foundation’s Community Policing & Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): Guidelines to Enhance Community Trust guidebook, funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice.

Police Foundation’s sUAS and Public Safety infographic provides an overview of operational, training and legal and regulatory compliance considerations in visual format for law enforcement agencies interested in using sUAS for public safety.

Forthcoming Police Foundation resources include:

The National Public Safety sUAS Flight Operations & Incident Reporting System, funded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice

The Police Foundation Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Public Safety website, funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice.


About Police Foundation

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The Police Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing policing through innovation and science. Established in 1970, the Foundation has conducted seminal research in police behavior, policy, and procedure, and works to transfer to local agencies the best new information about practices for dealing effectively with a range of important police operational and administrative concerns.

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