Launching a police drone program: Balancing privacy and public safety priorities


Utilizing a UAS over a public roadway to document the circumstances that led to a vehicle crash generally has less privacy implications than deploying a drone over a residential neighborhood during an emergency.

Introducing a UAS program as a limited documentation tool is likely to be met with less opposition than technology intended to serve as an aerial tool to gain real-time intelligence, even in situations that are justified.

It is advantageous to be transparent in the adoption of technology by proactively working with community members who may be apprehensive about a UAS program. By inviting stakeholders into the conversation early, you can clarify expectations and intentions.

Documentation missions refer to UAS deployments during non-emergency situations with the objective of preserving information post-event. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)
Documentation missions refer to UAS deployments during non-emergency situations with the objective of preserving information post-event. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

Limiting use cases to documentation missions may assuage privacy concerns and mitigate opposition that could hamper a program before it’s even approved. Other strategies to assuage privacy concerns include:

  • Adopting operational strategies to avoid inadvertently recording images of persons uninvolved in a case such as pointing the camera away from occupied structures that aren’t the focus of an investigation or leaving recording features turned off until needed for evidence collection.
  • Adopting software to archive exactly where a drone was flying, where the camera was pointed and if the camera was activated.
  • Clearly spelling out data collection and retention policies.
  • Adopting a media strategy.
  • Having a multi-pronged public outreach strategy to include community outreach sessions, posting policies and FAQs on your public web page and discussing your proposed program on social media.

Read more here: Using drones for documentation missions.


About the author

Major Christian Quinn is a veteran law enforcement leader and currently serves as the Commander of the Cyber & Forensic Bureau with the Fairfax County Police Department in Fairfax, Virginia. Mr. Quinn holds a Master of Forensic Sciences Degree from the George Washington University and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

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