More than a year after the Maine Legislature passed a law regulating how law enforcement in the state can use drones in police work, most departments still aren’t using the technology, according to an informal survey by the Portland Press Herald.
Representatives for police and sheriff’s departments across Maine said they could see how drones could be useful in a wide range of police work, from rescue operations and crime scene reconstruction to active shooter scenarios, but cited cost, state and federal regulations and a lack of manpower as some of the reasons they are not using the unmanned aircraft.
“We constantly review new options for ways to do things more efficiently and safely,” said Maj. Christopher Grotton of the Maine State Police. “I think it’s really just a matter of time and resources.”
Citing concerns about the widening array of surveillance technologies available to law enforcement across the country, Maine legislators passed the law last year requiring police to obtain a search warrant before using drones in criminal investigations, solicit approval from local governments before purchasing a drone and develop drone policies that meet minimum standards set by the state, among other provisions.
“We were seeing that in other parts of the country the technology was starting to be used,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who co-sponsored the law. “We wanted to be sure that as this technology begins to come into use here in Maine, that we have some real rules in place on how it will be used.”
Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said she pressed for the legislation after a drone dropped in on a private family event at her home.
“There was nothing I could do,” Guerin said. “You’re left with a pretty uncomfortable feeling that somebody had come to observe in my backyard. It was really creepy.”
MAINE DRONE STANDARDS IN DEVELOPMENT
In 2012, Congress instructed the Federal Aviation Administration to develop rules to regulate commercial and recreational drone use. In December, a rule went into effect requiring owners to register unmanned aircraft weighing between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds with the FAA. More than 450,000 people have registered so far, although the FAA estimates that Americans will buy 2.5 million drones this year. The devices sell for as little as $20, but more advanced models equipped with high-definition cameras and capable of carrying multi-pound loads can cost more than $5,000.
Under Maine’s law, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and the state attorney general must provide minimum standards for departments interested in using drones in the state. Those standards, which would dictate training and certification requirements for drone pilots, how departments store and handle drone footage, and what data they must collect about their drone use, among other areas, are still being developed. The Maine Department of Public Safety also is required to submit an annual report detailing the number of times that agencies throughout the state seek to deploy and use a drone.
That report, which was due July 1, was submitted last week and stated that the department was not aware of any law enforcement use of drones since last July when the law went into effect.
Of the dozen Maine law enforcement agencies that were contacted about drone use, just one – the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office – said it owns one. It acquired the vehicle this year, but officials have not used it because they are waiting for an FAA license, said Capt. Don Goulet. Law enforcement is subject to the same requirements as commercial drone pilots under FAA rules, but officials can apply for waivers if they wish to operate outside of those restrictions.
“We saw this as a tool for crime scene photography,” Goulet said. “We’ve applied for our license. I don’t know how long it’s going to take.”
Currently, the sheriff’s office must send someone up a fire truck ladder in order to get an aerial view of a crime scene, Goulet said. He did not say how much the department had paid for its drone or which model it had purchased.
TENSIONS AS POLICE DRONE USE RISES
Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton said his department received a monetary gift toward the purchase of a drone, but was waiting for the criminal justice academy to finalize its drone policy recommendations before proceeding with the purchase.
“We decided that, given they were still looking at a policy, it would be prudent for us to wait,” Moulton said.
It is not clear how many law enforcement agencies across the country use drones. Arthur Holland Michel, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, estimates that more than 100 departments have adopted the technology, although he stressed that current numbers on drone use by police are anecdotal.
“What I can say is that law enforcement interest in use of drones has grown significantly in the last few years and shows no sign of slowing down,” Holland Michel said.
Tensions over the devices have flared as more departments look into acquiring them. In September, police in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sparked controversy when they asked a drone contractor conducting a demonstration to fly the aircraft to a nearby bridge after officers received reports of a suicidal man about to jump into the Susquehanna River. When the drone flew to the area, it did not find the man but continued to record as officers approached another man seated nearby. Footage of that second man, who was black, wound up on the contractor’s website, prompting questions about racial profiling by police.
“There’s a lot involved when you start filming things,”Harrisburg City Solicitor Neil Grover told Penn Live. “Soon we’re going to have every officer across the country wearing cameras. We have a lot of work to do.”
PROTECTING PRIVACY IN THE DRONE ERA
Twenty-two states, including Maine, have passed legislation addressing privacy concerns and drones. Eighteen states have passed laws requiring law enforcement agencies to seek a warrant before using a drone in criminal investigations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Privacy advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which helped push the 2015 legislation, said local governments need to stay ahead of technology that by many accounts is only in its nascent stages.
“In the more traditional law enforcement investigations, we all know what to expect. People know what their rights are,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director for the ACLU of Maine. “The way new technology works, I may not know that they’re looking at my cellphone records or using thermal imaging technology on my car. It’s not clear at all.”