Some Local Police Departments Embracing Drones, While Other Departments Are Shying Away

Washington State is the most northern western state in the Continental US. It is also the country’s 18th largest and 13th most populated state, with Seattle and it’s surrounding areas compromising the state’s densest populations. As of the 2008 census, the state had 260 law enforcement agencies with about 174 officers for every 100,000 residents, making it the state with the lowest officer to resident ratio. With such a low ratio it made perfect sense why the Seattle Police Department became one of the country’s earliest supporters of drone technology.

For police departments of any size, a drone can prove to be a useful tool. But when you have small departments, a drone program can become even more critical. A drone would allow a police department to monitor traffic, canvas crime scenes, and aid in search and rescue missions. When a department has fewer officers, a drone can take on the burden of some of these time critical tasks, allowing officers to better delegate their efforts. So when the Seattle Police Department was granted federal funds for a drone program in 2012 they purchased 2 Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech drones that each weigh 3.5lbs. The department quickly began training designated officers to become FAA compliant in using drones for police matters. They announced the new drone program at a public presentation, and were shocked by the audience’s response.

The audience was in an uproar and began shouting down the presenting officers, fearing the abuse of their privacy rites. Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, said that the presentation drew, “tremendous, widespread concern among the general public.” In response, the city held a public hearing that outlined in strict detail the departments proposed drone program with a plan to hold a city wide vote on the program latter in the month. One day after the hearing, which also allowed citizens to voice their concerns, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn made a shocking announcement about the program.

Rather than waiting for the community to put the program to a vote, the mayor decided to immediately scrap the drone program. He said, “Today I spoke with Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, and we agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority.” The 2 drones would be returned to the vendor and the funds would be used elsewhere in the department. While the drones could have been a great benefit to the community, those in charge listened to the citizens they serve and chose to respect their concerns. Honig from the ACLU happily agreed with the direction the mayor went in, saying “It’s a wise decision. Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.”

To this day the Seattle Police Department still has no drone program, and several other major cities in Washington, like Tacoma, have also chosen to err on the side of caution when it comes to police drones. However, Washington State still has found a way to have a strong police drone program. Washington State Patrol (WSP) has the largest fleet of police drones in the nation. WSP uses more than 100 drones in it’s state wide operations, including operations in Seattle when necessary. With the successful drone program modeled by the WSP other local Washington police departments have begun implementing drone programs to assist their officers.

One such community is Renton in King County, about 11miles southeast of Seattle. Under the guidance of Police Commander Chad Karlewicz, The Renton Police Department began using drone in 2016. Karlewicz explained, “Initially, we just used them like the Washington State Patrol is doing now, for mapping crash scenes. Then we expanded to crime scenes, mapping those. Our SWAT teams use them extensively. So they’ll use those to fly indoors and search a structure with a drone before we send bodies in there. We use them for SWAT mobile watches when we are doing warrant services, those kind of things. And earlier this year, we rolled them out to most of the divisions in our department, so every patrol crew has a pilot and a drone available to them.”

The Renton Police Department has several types of drones at their disposal, including models by Autel Robotics and DJI. Karlewicz says that the department uses the drones for about 30-40 missions a month and that they have proven to not only keep officers safer, but allows them to work more efficiently towards the betterment of the community. In terms of privacy concerns, the department sticks strictly to ACLU guidelines. “We have fairly robust policies in place,” Karlewicz said. “I know there is always that concern about big brother and that kind of thing, but policies prohibit us from random surveillance. They tell us not to point cameras in the direction of private, uninvolved citizens. Really, we are using them for specific purposes, that’s why we have a policy that on a mission, we will record it. That is our effort to be transparent.”

When the Seattle Police Department canceled their drone program before it really began, several Washington State police departments were shocked. Some have followed in Seattle’s footsteps, staying away from drone programs. Luckily, if the need should arise, these communities can count on the WSP for drone backup. Meanwhile, towns like Renton, and Kent have extensively used drones. Amazingly the Tukwila Police Department, that is part of a restricted airspace region, have even been able to implement a safe working drone program since 2017.

More and more police departments throughout Washington State, and the rest of the country, are developing drone programs. As Karlewicz said, “If we can fly a drone in and clear the majority of a house with a machine instead of putting a human in there, possibly in danger, we do that. Same thing for a high-risk stop and the subject is refusing to get out of a car. It would be nice to see what he is doing in the car. So we might fly a drone up and look inside the car and see what he is doing and if he presents a danger to us, tell if he’s armed and that kind of thing. So really it’s progressed to a point where that tool keeps us safer and more efficient.” When is comes to police work, that is one of the most important things to keep in mind. Finding ways for officers to work to the best of their ability, allowing them to protect and serve their community, while posing minimal risk to themselves.

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