Drone Use For Law Enforcement and Homeland Security

Drone Use For Law Enforcement and Homeland Security

With the integration of drones into the battlefield in the 90’s and early 2000’s, the potential uses for the technology were realized. Soon after, the military began integrating UAVs for surveillance, communication and imaging purposes. Advancing technology and increased funding for research and development led to drones becoming smaller, lighter, and more capable of covert missions. This was the beginning of the migration of drones from the battlefield to our homeland.

The drones we may soon see flying over America hardly resemble the large and heavy Predator and Global Hawk drones that have been operating in the Middle East. However, the public’s impression of a ‘Drone’ is still lagging behind to these larger aircraft, when in fact the technology is quickly shrinking. The main potential uses for domestic drones by law enforcement here at home include tasks such as surveillance, crowd monitoring, and search and rescue. None of which would require an aircraft much larger than 50lb.

The potential uses for drones by government agencies are many. Recently the FBI has admitted to owning and operating drones. “Our footprint is very small,” Robert Mueller (FBI Representative) told the Senate judiciary committee. “We have very few and have limited use.” Despite the seldom use, this shows the technology can be of use to law enforcement and homeland security. Local police departments proposed the use of UAVs for many various applications. These include accident reconstruction, tactical/SWAT operations, intelligence & evidence gathering, traffic & crowd control and more.  The concept of drone surveillance is very attractive to law enforcement agencies.  “They can record video images and produce heat maps or track fleeing criminals — or just as easily, political protesters. And for strapped police departments, they are more affordable than helicopters.” 

Many of these applications seem aggressive, but othes like search and rescue are much more desirable to the public. On September 11th 2014, 23 year old Christina Morris went missing in Texas. The FAA granted special wavers for drones to be used in the search. Aerial photos are very useful for searching the vast fields within the 20-mile grid area she is believed to be. “Morris’ mother, Jonni McElroy, is thankful for the new eyes in the sky. She believes someone has her daughter and she’s hoping the high-tech drones can help bring her daughter home.”

Drones are also currently being used for border patrol purposes. In 2005 the CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) first deployed a Predator drone to help secure the Southwest Boarder. Now The Senate immigration bill would implement a 24/7-boarder surveillance system that would rely significantly on drones. “It’s an effective tool for what we’re using it for,” a CBP drones expert said. “Saving manpower means saving money.”

Despite all the possible applications and interest from law enforcement, policy and state law currently grounds many of these drones. The LAPD recently acquired 2 multi-rotor helicopters designed for aerial surveillance. Shortly after, they were confiscated in federal care until an operation policy was developed and approved. Even if a reasonable policy is implemented, supporters of the ‘Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’ say the risk of police abuse is too great to allow LAPD to operate the aircraft. Assembly Bill 1327 which was passed by the legislator last month would allow police agencies to use unmanned aerial vehicles in emergency situations such as search-and-rescue operations, wild fires, criminal tracking, environmental disasters, and illegal activity in wilderness areas. However, it would also require all photos or video footage to be destroyed within one year of its recording. This bill does a great job of restricting the irresponsible use of drones, but enabling their use for reasonable and ethical tasks. Despite this, many anti-drone advocates are not convinced. “The exceptions to obtaining a warrant in the bill were so broad that you can fly a drone through them.”

Another controversial issue regarding drones and privacy is the data collected. Many privacy advocates say any data collected can only be used for the original purpose of collection. For example, if a drone is flying over a forest to map a wildfire burn path, and happens to come across a marijuana farm, the collected evidence cannot be used against the marijuana growers. This is a reasonable policy to protect the privacy rights of citizens yet still allow law enforcement agencies to experience the benefits of the technology.

Until they start making decisions on their own, drones are neither good not bad. They are simply tools to extend human capability. It is up to lawmakers to decide how the technology is used and who will be granted permission to use it. Personally, I would trust law enforcement agencies with drones as long as they are used responsibly and overseen by multiple levels of higher authority. If drones are strategically implemented into United States law enforcement, then more citizens will be benefited than harmed. If safety really is our number one priority then it’s in our best interest to allow their use.