Like Many Larger Cities, Grand Rapids, Michigan Wants a Police Drone of Its Own

The police department of Grand Rapids, Michigan (GRPD) faced a quandary last week.  A woman was holed up in an apartment building threatening violence against others and herself.  Officers arrived on the scene but couldn’t see high enough into her ninth-floor apartment to assess the situation.  Frustrated, the GRPD chief decided to ask a nearby department for help – with its drone.  Within minutes, the GRPD had a view of the scene and realized its best course of action.  Police breached the woman’s door and rescued her without incident.

Now, the GRPD wants a drone of its own.  But many local citizens aren’t sold on the idea.

It’s a common problem.  Despite an extraordinary track record of success with drones nationwide, police departments in cities like Grand Rapids often face stiff opposition from a vocal minority.  The main objection – or fear – is that drones could infringe on private property and citizen privacy.   A related concern is that drones might be used to spy on citizens engaged in peaceful protest.  It hasn’t helped that in some early deployments in 2020, a handful of police departments in Wisconsin and southern California did just that – and were sued and forced to settle.

That’s one reason so many police departments that have acquired drones in recent years – an estimated 1,600, or 10% already have, in fact – are based in small rural (often conservative) towns or cities where the population tends to be highly supportive of their police departments.  These locales haven’t faced racial incidents and controversies involving the police.  Nor have they seen the kind of large-scale civil unrest that has prompted some departments to deploy drones to prevent outbreaks of violence, prompting civil liberties concerns.

In fact, those problems are largely a thing of the past.  Police departments nationwide have established strict protocols on drone use that address most if not all of these issues.  Police don’t patrol public spaces proactively, but only in response to actual crime incidents; and they do not use facial recognition technology or in most cases, even train their cameras on license plates, unless the driver is a fleeing suspect.

But citizen resistance to drones in larger cities like Grand Rapids persists.  Nearby towns like Walker and Wyoming already have drones.  In some cases they have entire drone teams.  Even the town of Big Rapids, with just 18 police officers, has acquired its own drones.  As of late 2021, well over 50 police departments in Michigan are deploying drones, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. But not Grand Rapids.

“We’re kind of late to the party. There’s a lot of much smaller agencies that already have drones,” GRPD Chief Eric Winstrom told a local TV station last week.

Winstrom recently presented a plan to the Grand Rapids City Commission’s Public Safety Committee for the purchase of six drones and the training of up to 10 officers to pilot them.  Initial funding for the plan is about $100,000.  A period of public review is now underway

The GRPD’s plan outlines a number of drone missions that police departments elsewhere have conducted with growing success, including enhanced crime and accident scene analysis and expedited pursuit of criminal suspects.  Drones have also proven useful in the search-and-rescue of lost and missing persons, frequently saving lives that might otherwise have been lost. The GRPD plan highlights this mission, too.

Winstrom told the Commission that at a time of severe budget cutbacks, drones function as a force multiplier, requiring fewer officers to be deployed to the field.  They can also protect officers from confrontations that might result in injury and loss of life.  It’s a compelling argument.

But local protesters, including activist members of the Defund the Police movement, don’t want to see any additional resources given to the GRPD.

Winstrom is confident that the Commission will eventually vote to approve his proposed drone plan, once the mandatory public comment period is completed.

“There’s a lot of common sense in this town. When it comes down to it, and when you really understand what we’re going to be doing with these drones and how that’s going to benefit the people of Grand Rapids,  I think the city’s going to come together and say ‘yeah, it’s probably about time we utilize this technology for the benefit of the city,” he said.

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