Add two more big city police departments to the growing list of law enforcement agencies that are deploying drones to bolster their crime fighting capabilities.
The Grand Rapids Michigan Police Department (GRPD) announced its intent to buy a fleet of new drones for roughly $100,000 at a press event in late September. Specific details about the number and types of drones to be deployed were not provided at that time but at least six drones are planned for deployment, police officials say.
The GRPD first floated the idea for drones back in mid-2022 and solicited public comment – and soon found itself embroiled in controversy. At the time, many members of the community said they supported drone use but some voiced concern about overzealous police surveillance and demanded more details about the planned purchase.
In response the GRPD has taken great pains to explain the numerous strict protocols governing their use of drones, including restrictions on drone deployment to emergency response, search-and-rescue and crime scene analysis, primarily.
Police officials also say their drones will not be armed, engage in routine neighborhood overflights and be equipped with facial recognition technology. Drones cannot be flown “where members of the public have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” police chief Erik Winstrom explained at a community forum held last summer.
In addition, the GRPD has agreed to submit a quarterly report to a police oversight board that will detail how and why their drones were used, for how long and whether a warrant governed their use, as stipulated in current guidelines.
“I’m not aware of any other police department that has this level of oversight, as it relates to surveillance use,” the head of the oversight board told the Grand Rapids mayor last August.
A similar concern for public review and oversight is apparent in the announcement by the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) of its intent to purchase a new fleet of drones for deployment beginning later this fall.
The BPD says it plans to use drones to improve its crime scene analysis as well as to enhance its response to specific tactical situations, including hostage rescues, active shooter scenarios and “high risk raids.”
“Our Crime Scene Unit will be able to use the [new drone] technology as a more efficient, cost-effective and safer alternative to documenting scenes, while simultaneously capturing images and aerial documentation that present a true and accurate representation of the scene for investigators and for use in a court of law,” BPD’s official guidance notes.
Like the GRPD, the BPD insists that it will not engage in intrusive surveillance or encroach on citizen privacy rights, and has issued formal guidelines current drone use protocols, as well as a complaint system to address potential misuse.
The GRPD has already deployed its new drones for 50 tactical missions in the month of October alone, according to police records. At a recent shooting at a popular downtown bar, drones allowed GRPD police to scope out the crime scene and adjust their tactical response accordingly, minimizing the use of force.
“These devices give us a bird’s eye view we didn’t have before,” says Winstrom.
The GRPD is not the only police department in Michigan that is currently using drones. Police departments in Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming, as well as the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, which encompassed Grand Rapids, have been using drones for some time.
In the past, when the GRPD needed drone assistance, it would request it from the Kent County Sheriff’s office on an ad hoc basis.
But a surge in violent crime in Grand Rapids since 2022, especially in the downtown area, led the department to seek out additional support. In addition, GRPD officials say that drones are a force multiplier that can offset staffing cutbacks in the police force.
BPD officials also want drones to enhance its tactical response capability. The department already uses manned aircraft to collate ground-based video surveillance systems at banks and street corners, but the system hasn’t helped the department intervene in unfolding crime scenarios.
A spike in violent crimes, including a deadly mass shooting in late July, which killed 3 and wounded 28, has helped fuel police interest in acquiring drones.
So far, the department has acquired just three drones at a cost of $38,000, but more purchases are planned for later this year.
All told about 1,600 of the nation’s police and fire departments – about 8% of the total – now deploy at least one drone for crime-fighting purposes, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at New York’s Bard College.
In addition, the FAA, ACLU, NAACP and International Association of Chiefs of Police all have policies, recommendations or usage limits in place to guide departmental use of drones.