Top policy experts gather for advisory panel on developing community trust for police use of unmanned aerial systems

A panel of national experts in law enforcement, civil liberties, technology, and government policy gathered Monday as an advisory board on building community trust for police use of unmanned aerial systems. The advisory board has been assembled by the Police Foundation as part of a project to develop a guidebook for police departments that will help navigate the sometimes controversial efforts to utilize drones for searches, suspect apprehension, and crime prevention.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been ordered by Congress to develop guidelines on how to integrate the use of unmanned aerial vehicles into U.S. airspace by 2015. Although 27 law enforcement agencies have already received permission to test the use of drones in carefully managed pilots, most police departments must wait until the FAA lays out guidelines to begin using the new technology. However, the technology itself is spreading rapidly into private use by “hobbyists,” some of whom are already coming into conflict with local privacy ordinances and causing law enforcement officials to realize they cannot wait to develop local policies to deal with these problems.

Will Johnson 4_0Public reaction to the National Security Agency’s massive telephone monitoring program, as well as media coverage of “drone strikes” targeting terrorist leaders in the Middle East, have led many state legislatures to pass laws restricting warrantless use of unmanned aerial systems by law enforcement, or in some cases banning their use altogether. Police agencies in cities like Seattle have faced such a negative reaction to simply purchasing UAVs that they have cancelled the program before even being able to fly the drones.

But unmanned aerial systems – which include the flying vehicles, a controlling unit, and video or photographic displays – have a promising potential for law enforcement activities like search and rescue, active shooter situations, and information gathering during chaotic traffic and natural disaster situations, Police Foundation President Jim Bueermann said. The Police Foundation project is designed to provide guidance in how to achieve community consensus and how to convince policymakers of the value of these systems for public safety.

With the support of a grant from the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Police Foundation has conducted focus group sessions in California, Colorado, New Jersey, and Utah. Unmanned aerial system pilot programs operated by the Arlington, Texas Police Department and the Mesa County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Department have been studied in-depth for successes and challenges faced. The Foundation has gathered a legal and policy team to review legal issues surrounding unmanned aerial systems and to look at other technologies that have been challenged on the basis of civil liberties and privacy issues.

The advisory board Monday was brought together to begin the process of determining what topics should be included in a potential guidebook for police agencies considering deployment of an unmanned aerial system. Possible topics range from determining what the system’s mission would be and which system would best serve the community’s needs to looking at how to develop a transparent process that involves the community in creating guidelines for use.

Board members expressed a wide range of perspectives on the issue of police use of unmanned aerial systems, but all agreed that the subject will most likely be faced by many agencies in the near future. The most important elements in any law enforcement plan to use the unmanned systems is to establish a clear mission, to work hard to communicate that mission plan to the community and policy makers, and to maintain a high level of transparency in order to retain public trust.

“We need to sell (UAS’s) as a community asset, not a military-style asset,” Chief Will Johnson of the Arlington Police Department. “We told (the community) we will use it only in response to an imminent problem, like an active shooter. In all other cases, we will get a warrant. People are much less worried when they know that there are laws and case law that protects privacy.”

The guidebook will provide information for law enforcement agencies to share with their communities about the multiple layers of technological and legal protection that will be in place to ensure public safety and the defense of civil liberties, Bueermann said. The advisory board’s recommendations will be incorporated in the final product, which is scheduled to be completed later this year.