How police can justify a drone acquisition to the public

Helping your community understand how unmanned aerial systems can improve public safety is key to overcoming public resistance


Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are cheap enough that almost any law enforcement agency can afford one. Gaining the community’s approval for the purchase is a little harder.

Drones, or UAS (the current in-vogue terminology) are ubiquitous. Their size varies between a large insect and a medium military airplane, although most of the models used in public safety will be man-portable inside a Pelican™ case.

In this Feb. 13, 2014, photo, members of the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office search and rescue team fly their search and rescue drone during a demonstration, in Brigham City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
In this Feb. 13, 2014, photo, members of the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office search and rescue team fly their search and rescue drone during a demonstration, in Brigham City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

They usually run on rechargeable batteries, with an endurance of less than 30 minutes. Pilots are trained and licensed in a few weeks, for a few thousand dollars.

Peter DeLisa is a former law enforcement officer who operates an aviation business, including training UAS pilots and preparing them for certification. 

“I saw drone training as a natural merging of my expertise,” said DeLisa, who cited instances where UAS have been helpful in locating lost children and seniors who had wandered from their homes.

Another business useful to public safety operations is CRG Plans, operated by a retired New Jersey State Police officer. The company develops layered photographic maps that show interior floor plans (among other things) superimposed onto aerial photographs. “The maps are then overlaid with a grid, so that officers can be directed to grid coordinates, rather than to something like ‘Loading Dock 2,’ when they are unfamiliar with the layout of the building,” DeLisa said.

The literary reference may be dated now, but some critics of public safety UAS cite a fear of “1984” style surveillance by police. In Orwell’s dystopian novel (written in 1948), the Thought Police used helicopters to spy into citizens’ windows, looking for seditious behavior. An aircraft with only a few minutes of available loiter time isn’t going to be especially useful for this, even if the police were inclined to do it. People should probably be more concerned about the data their smartphones and fitness bracelets are collecting about them.

Educating the public about how drones can assist police operations

While UAS in law enforcement applications are often compared to helicopters, there is a world of difference between the two. A helicopter is a multi-million-dollar purchase, costs hundreds of dollars an hour to operate, and requires at least one commercial pilot with years of expensive training. They have much more capability, as they can carry a lot more gear and travel hundreds of miles (beyond visual line of sight), where the payload on a UAS is typically limited to a few pounds and cannot be operated beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight. 

While UAS aren’t meant to replace helicopters, these limitations don’t undercut the utility of a police UAS. There are many law enforcement situations where just being able to see the situation from a high vantage point is huge.

UAS have been used to help locate lost children and seniors who have wondered from their homes. Crime scenes and accident investigation sites are another area where UAS are useful. A UAS can map a crime scene much faster and probably more accurately than a human on the ground can. The UAS may reveal evidence that is invisible to those on the ground because of terrain features or other obstructions. The UAS may also be able to fly in weather conditions that would ground conventional aircraft.

In a Florida case, a fugitive tried to hide in a swamp. A thermal camera mounted on a UAS revealed the suspect’s hidden location, as well as that of some other swamp-dwellers. The cops were able to tell him over a PA system, “Come to us, or four alligators are coming to you.” The suspect took the first option. 

During a protest in Richmond, Virginia, an overhead UAS was flown to prevent any conflict between pedestrians and vehicles, and assisted the police to successfully direct motor officers to stop traffic before it got intermeshed with the protesters. 

After the Santa Rosa (CA) wildfire, a UAS recorded this spectacular 360° high-resolution photo of the damage. 

Charles Werner of the National Council on Public Safety UAS recounted a deployment by a California sheriff’s office during the raid of a drug house: “Search warrants were issued and the UAS was flying overhead maintaining an overwatch when the deputies made entry, and could see all sides of the house. It saw and recorded people coming out of windows, drugs thrown into the bushes, and guns thrown onto the roof. The suspects were a block away and thought they were home free when units rolled up and arrested them.”

How to overcome public objections about police drones

Werner offered these tips to overcome public objections to the acquisition and deployment of a UAS:

  1. Know what you are getting into, as a UAS program requires governance, policies/procedures, defining missions, selection of UAS and payloads, training/proficiency, maintenance and thorough documentation.
  2. Engage your jurisdiction’s administration and elected officials.
  3. Be up front and open (transparent).
  4. Provide success stories from other localities (there are plenty).
  5. Plan to use the UAS for multiple public safety missions and with other public safety agencies.
  6. Where possible, create a multi-discipline public safety UAS team.
  7. Where possible, create a regional team of public safety from multiple jurisdictions.
  8. Develop a clear policy as to when UAS will be used for surveillance and evidentiary purposes.
  9. Provide the safeguards that will be in place to ensure personal privacy.
  10. Explain recording policy and length of maintaining those video recordings.
  11. Explain the extent to maintain training and safety protocols.
  12.  Consider involving the local ACLU in review of department UAS policies.
  13. Ensure your pilots are certified and licensed under the appropriate FAA regulations.

Follow these guidelines, and your agency may have its own unmanned aircraft ready to help keep the community safe.

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