Community Policing and Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Guidelines to Enhance Community Trust

Project Purpose/Goal

Many law enforcement agencies are considering the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) as a tool for lost person searches, officer safety enhancement, accident scene reconstruction, and other uses. These small systems can provide an aerial viewpoint at a fraction of the cost of manned aviation systems, but it is important for law enforcement agencies to recognize that the public is wary of invasion of privacy and other legal and practical issues associated with the use of “drones.” This project aims to provide comprehensive guidance for law enforcement on how to work with their communities to obtain support and enhance trust by applying the principles and practices of community policing to the acquisition and use of small unmanned aircraft systems.


Project Design/Methodological Approach

A primary objective of this project is to produce a guidebook to help law enforcement agencies understand the costs and benefits to using UASs, the legal challenges and liability issues associated with their use, and how to develop and implement policies that will address and defuse potential tensions between the community and law enforcement. The guidebook will include detailed UAS usage guidelines that police can adopt voluntarily and informational materials, such as talking points, that law enforcement executives can use to inform the public. The materials could also be used to build dialogue and consensus with community organizations, city councils, and state legislatures about expectations of privacy and law enforcement’s use of UAS when lawfully deployed.

Input to the guidebook has been provided by law enforcement, community, and UAS experts in two main formats:

  1. Five Regional Focus Groups: Focus groups comprised of law enforcement and community representation from 5 jurisdictions around the country (Los Gatos, CA; Draper City, UT; San Bernardino, CA; Milliken, CO; and Morristown, NJ) met to provide both law enforcement and community perspective on UAS deployment by law enforcement.
  2. National Advisory Board: The Police Foundation gathered together a group of experts in law enforcement, aviation, law, and civil rights in Washington, D.C. in 2014. The advisory board included representatives of law enforcement agencies that have successfully acquired UASs. These agencies are the Arlington (TX) Police Department and the Mesa County (CO) Sheriff’s Office.


Project Status

This project culminated in 2018 with the launch of a Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Public Safety.


Funding & Collaboration

This project was supported by cooperative agreement number 2013-CK-WX-K002 awarded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) is the component of the U.S. Department of Justice responsible for advancing the practice of community policing by the nation’s state, local, territory, and tribal law enforcement agencies through information and grant resources.

Additionally, a number of Police Foundation Executive Fellows were instrumental in facilitating the successful completion of the regional focus groups.


Points of Contact

Maria Valdovinos
Senior Research Associate
(202) 833-1460



Community policing, UAS, drones, law enforcement, transparency, accountability