As Police Drones Proliferate, Regulation is Needed to Curb Misuse

The Los Angeles Police Department faced stiff opposition Tuesday, after it approved a year-long trial to use drones as a crime-fighting tool in hostage situations, high-speed chases, and other law-enforcement functions. The decision comes after years of criticism from electronic privacy and civil rights advocates, who fear the technology lacks transparency and is ripe for abuse by authorities.

The drone debate began here in 2014, when the LAPD acquired — but never deployed — two drones from police in Seattle. And although the department sought renewed input from the community in recent weeks, opponents say its approval “fails to take into account public mistrust” of police surveillance.

The LAPD is the nation’s third largest police force, overseeing nearly 500 square miles inhabited by more than 4 million people. The agency has been a pioneer in using police body cameras to document potentially contentious encounters, and its most recent foray into drone technology will almost certainly be watched by policymakers across the country, many of whom are actively considering how it might reshape their own urban policing. Already, law enforcement and public safety agencies nationwide are rapidly buying up unmanned aircraft to survey crime scenes, perform surveillance, and help with search-and-rescue operations.

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The problem, critics say, is that while the potential benefits of drone technology in law enforcement might seem apparent, police departments have mostly been unwilling to release data on its use and effectiveness in the field — and there has thus far been little independent research on the topic. That means that drones are likely to become a bedrock part of policing well before anyone has a chance to study their full implications on privacy and civil rights.

As it stands, at least 347 state and local police, fire, and emergency agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones in the past several years, according to a recent study conducted by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, and the momentum is only growing. Last year, local and state agencies bought more drones than in all previous years combined, and “this year will likely set another record,” said Dan Gettinger, who led the study.

To be sure, the potential upside seems enormous: The devices could be outfitted with thermographic sensors to record heat signatures — identifying a suspect hiding in a pond, for example, or seeing through smoke. They could also be used to read license plates or identify suspects through facial recognition technology, as we recently discussed here at “Convictions.”

One popular drone model among law enforcement, the DJI Phantom, uses an automated flight mode called Active Track that will automatically track, follow, and/or orbit a person or a moving object such as a car. In other words, it’s tailor-made for police surveillance and pursuits, especially in urban environments. (I recently discussed image algorithms like the ones used in this device in my columns on artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology.)

Most law enforcement agencies have not shared cost, training, or operational data around their drone programs, which has fueled opposition from Los Angeles to New York City. Electronic privacy and civil rights advocates fear an advanced, Orwellian surveillance state where police drones could spy on people without warrants. Racial justice and police reform advocates also fear that law enforcement will deploy drones disproportionately in African American communities where the police are already perceived as an occupying power. Many of these police departments are already deploying surplus military equipment, such as the mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles spotted at the Ferguson protests.

“When police acquire military equipment or advanced surveillance technology, such as drones, we believe [they] owe it to the public to explain why they need it,” David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, told me in August. This was only weeks after the legislature set aside a proposal that would have made Connecticut the first state to allow armed police drones. Instead, the state decided to study the use of weaponized drones further. “You’re ultimately asking for misuse when there are no limitations on new technologies,” McGuire said.

In response to these concerns, the LAPD has said it will put strict policies in place regarding which officers are authorized to fly drones and under what circumstances. The department will document all requests to fly drones and make quarterly reports on their use available to the public.

Other departments that recently acquired unmanned systems have also developed strict usage policies. Police in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, acquired two drone systems this past summer and outlined specific policies for when, where, and how they can be used. Law enforcement in Wisconsin already must get a warrant to use drones for surveillance. Madison police announced their unmanned systems will not be flown over private property to catch people who are potentially breaking the law. Drone operations will also be included in a yearly report available to the public.

The Police Foundation, a non-profit group that focuses on improving policing through scientific research, wants more departments to share data on drone operations and performance. The organization is developing an open-source database where departments can upload data on training, maintenance, and missions.

Police Foundation research associate Maria Valdovinos said drone policing technology has evolved “so quickly that policies, regulations and organizational frameworks are also evolving to keep up.”

With funding from the U.S. Justice Department, the Police Foundation published what is likely the first guidance for law enforcement agencies that are thinking about buying drones. The guidebook lists key areas that an agency’s operational plan should address: how drones will be used in the community, laws governing its use, procedures for ensuring operational safety, and guidelines for protecting the public.

“We received this award back in 2013 when the potential of this technology to be used by law enforcement was definitely on the radar,” said Valdovinos, a former FBI researcher, when we spoke last month. A number of police departments have adopted drones without getting the community onboard, she said.

“When that didn’t happen, departments often had to shelve this technology.”

Rod McCullom reports on the intersection of science, medicine, race, sexuality, and poverty. He has written for The Atlantic, The Nation, and Scientific American, among other publications.

Rod McCullom is a Chicago-based science journalist and senior contributor to Undark whose work has been published by Scientific American, Nature, The Atlantic, and MIT Technology Review, among other publications.