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Setting and disclosing drone use policies

They're up in the sky, whether from hobbyists, businesses and, increasingly, law enforcement. Small unmanned aircraft systems, (sUAS) or drones. They are actually small aircraft designed to be flown without any human pilot, crew or passengers on board. They're nimble, able to get into tight and tiny spaces, and to quickly ascend to assess and oversee a situation, as well as get into spaces where a helicopter is just too big and takes much longer to get in the air.

There is much to celebrate with the addition of drones to the toolbox of law enforcement. But there is also the potential for misuse, for a drone to be utilized to spy on someone or a group of people in a “Big Brother” fashion.

There are some national guidelines generated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As reporter Stacy Gittleman explains in the longform article in this issue, a drone cannot be just pulled out of a box and put up in the air. The FAA has established requirements, including that a law enforcement officer must be trained and licensed as a drone pilot. Any violation of the parameters which allow police to use drones, especially violations of search and seizure laws as set by the Fourth Amendment, would be cause for the FAA to revoke a department’s drone license.

Local law enforcement departments explained they are using drones as part of a first responder’s drone program, to assist their police work in finding missing children, dementia or special needs patients, to assist in finding a fleeing suspect, for traffic accident and crime scene investigation work, firefighting, or other severe crime fighting situations.

What can't be done is use of drones for surveillance just for the hell of it. There is a world of difference between proactive safety surveillance of a million-person event like the Dream Cruise and scoping out a neighborhood event or a local march where drone presence can have a chilling effect. And that needs to be clearly enunciated by every police department and municipality with a drone, which is where a policy comes into play.

Although Bloomfield Township does not have a written policy, other police agencies contacted for our story had written rules for drone operation. It is incumbent upon every department with a drone to have a written policy that clearly states how and when a drone can and will be used.

The best approach would be for Michigan to join with the growing number of states that have enacted laws governing how public safety departments can use drones so there is some consistency from community to community. Failing that, we think the details of a policy should at least be a matter that is approved by the governing board of each community, which gives residents a body to direct redress should there be perceived violations of the operating rules.

Every policy should contain rules dictating when drones are allowed to record events, rather than just filming everything in a drone's path on the way to a specific public safety event, much like what is outlined in the policy now followed by the Birmingham Police Department which says, “operators will take steps to ensure the camera is focused on the areas necessary to the mission and to minimize the inadvertent collection of data of uninvolved persons or places.”

How long information recorded by a drone will be stored should be detailed. The policy must also specify where the public can go to review the record of a department's incidents for which a drone was put to use.

A good starting point for any community would be to mirror what Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, has done – there is a “Drone as First Responders” policy on the Oakland County Sheriff Transparency Dashboard, available to anyone accessing the department's website. It provides the official policy on the department's use of drones, notably that drones “may not be used solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment or the lawful exercise of other rights secured by the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions.” The sheriff's website also contains a record of incidents for which the drones have been used.

Once a policy is adopted, there must be some way for the public to view it now and in the future if changes are made without having to file a FOIA request. Lastly, the policy should outline a specific time period when the policy will be reviewed to address the rapidly changing advancements in drone technology that are taking place.

While we welcome the use of drones to strengthen and improve the efforts of public safety departments, as a society we need assurances that there are firm and transparent guidelines to prevent encroachment on citizen rights.


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