The Owensboro Police Department’s newly created Unmanned Aircraft Systems unit has the ability to use drone technology to help with search and rescue missions, provide surveillance in situations where a suspect has taken hostages, fired upon people or barricaded himself, and can gather crime or accident scene evidence from the air.
But the department’s drone policy limits when, and how, the device can be used.
“We are obviously going to be cautious about using it,” said Officer Andrew Boggess, OPD’s public information officer and a member of the unit.
The department’s policy was crafted based on policies from other departments with drone teams. The policy lays out qualifications and training requirements for drone team members, but deals mostly with when the department’s drone can be deployed.
The policy says the drone can only be used for authorized missions: documenting crime and accident scenes; surveying incidents involving hazardous waste; search and rescue missions; incidents involving hostages, a barricaded subject or an active shooter; disaster responses; and bomb threats.
Any other uses suggested by officers must be approved by the chief of police or a designee. When using the drone, the policy says officers and supervisors “will ensure operations … cause no greater intrusion on privacy interests than is necessary to carry out the mission in accordance with the law” and that officers must “make a reasonable effort … to minimize inadvertent recording of uninvolved persons.”
“The use of the UAS will be tightly regulated by the chief of police” or designee, and the drone will “not conduct random surveillance,” the policy says.
Flying over private property would require a warrant unless written permission is obtained from the owner or the unit commander can “articulate probable cause that exigent circumstances exist” to do so, the policy says.
Boggess said, “in most cases, we’ll try to use it in public areas where there are minimal privacy concerns,” such as during public events. “The courts have ruled if you’re in a public area, there’s very little expectation of privacy.”
In terms of operations, the drone can only be used with both a pilot and an observer, with the pilot focused on “the safe and effective operation of the UAS” and following department and Federal Aviation Administration policies. The observer alerts the pilot to any flight hazards while operating the drone’s camera and communication equipment, and working with patrol units at a scene.
Any accidents with the drone causing damage or serious injury must be reported to the FAA. Hazards or incidents with the drone will be investigated by the unit commander and the department’s Professional Standards Unit, which oversees officer disciplinary matters.
When a patrol unit calls for the drone, if the request is “reasonable,” a screening process takes place. The policy calls for the unit commander to assess whether the unit can perform the requested task, if the task is within the department policy guidelines and FAA regulations, if it can be done safely, if a warrant is needed and has been obtained, and if unit personnel are available to fly the mission. The pilot sent to the incident will then assess the scene and determine if the mission can be flown.
If more than one request is received at the same time, the requests will be prioritized. The drone is not to be used as a random surveillance tool, the policy says.
Boggess said the drone won’t be “flying all the time, trying to catch something,” and the device will be used in “isolated incidents” where it will be “useful in those circumstances.”
“We don’t want to get into that ‘Big Brother’ status where we are constantly surveilling people for no good reason,” Boggess said. “We believe very strongly in the protections provided by the Constitution, and don’t want to infringe on those without proper legal authority.”
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, email@example.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse