Homeland Security and Public Safety

Drones: The Future of Law Enforcement?

Drones could revolutionize police work. But privacy and security concerns could keep them grounded.

When an inmate escaped from jail in Montgomery County, Texas, a few years back, police took to the skies. Montgomery County sits just north of Houston, but the inmate fled into a nearby wooded area, making it harder for law enforcement officers to track him down. Fortunately, the sheriff’s department was able to secure a helicopter from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Officers located the inmate using an infrared camera, and they directed deputies to the location.

Today they’d just use a drone.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as UAVs or drones, are beginning to be embraced by local law enforcement agencies across the United States. Unmanned drones have, of course, made headlines in recent years for their use in foreign military operations. Drone surveillance helped target Osama bin Laden’s compound, and a CIA Predator drone fired the missile that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, another high-profile Al Qaeda figure. Now, the vehicles are likely moving into domestic airspace as well. In an effort to push for drone use in police and fire departments, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has reportedly awarded more than $3 million in grants to at least 13 local law enforcement agencies to purchase small drones -- including Montgomery County, which last year became one of the first local agencies in the country to acquire its own aerial drone. The county purchased a ShadowHawk MK-II drone last year for about $300,000, using a $220,000 DHS grant.

Drones could revolutionize police work. Helicopters are expensive to fuel and maintain, and flying them takes specialized piloting skills. Because they’re in relatively short supply, using a helicopter often requires interdepartmental coordination, as was the case in Montgomery County’s manhunt. By comparison, drones are easy. They cost about 100 times less than a helicopter, and operating a drone costs significantly less per hour. They’re extremely light: Montgomery’s gas-powered ShadowHawk weighs just 49 pounds. At six feet long, it can fit in the back of an SUV, and piloting it requires nothing more than a laptop computer and a remote control. It’s a nimble crime-fighting tool that will be an essential asset in the future, says Montgomery Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. When McDaniel’s office acquired the drone last year, he issued a statement saying, “I absolutely believe it will become a critical component on all SWAT callouts and narcotics raids and emergency management operations.”

“Having eyes in the air above an incident will enhance the awareness of the commander on the ground, to ensure his officers’ safety and the public’s safety,” McDaniel says today. “You can’t literally surround a building or a house every time. Having that drone up in the air above it can enhance safety for law enforcement.” The device would also help in non-crime situations, McDaniel says, such as tracking down hikers who have lost their way in nearby Sam Houston National Forest. “People get lost in that forest every year,” McDaniel says. “It would certainly be more effective to put that UAV up as opposed to sending 30 or 40 search-and-rescue personnel to walk it.”

It’s not just police departments that see big potential in unmanned drones. Fire departments and other emergency response teams could use them to help pinpoint the source of a building fire or, say, map a hazmat spill. The federal Department of Agriculture uses a drone to monitor experimental crops in Georgia and Alabama; state agriculture departments could no doubt find plenty of similar uses. Documents disclosed by a Freedom of Information Act request this summer from the Electronic Frontier Foundation showed that the federal government had approved drones for 18 public entities around the country, including police departments in Seattle, Miami-Dade, Fla., and North Little Rock, Ark., as well as places like Ohio University and the city of Herington, Kan. Thanks to anticipated changes in federal aviation regulations, thousands of private and commercial drones could also take to the air by 2015. According to FAA estimates, more than 30,000 drones could fill the American skies by 2020. As University of Texas assistant professor Todd Humphreys, who has investigated the use of domestic drones, testified to Congress earlier this year, “The UAV revolution is coming.”

Needless to say, privacy concerns are huge. Nothing says “Big Brother police state” quite like the idea of faceless surveillance drones flitting through the sky, tracking and videotaping civilians’ every move. According to one recent national poll, while 44 percent of Americans support the use of drones by police forces, a large minority -- 36 percent -- were opposed because of the potential for privacy invasion. Those fears are further stoked by comments like a recent statement from Alameda County, Calif., Sheriff Gregory Ahern, who said his department, which has filed for drone clearance from the FAA, would use the vehicles to troll for marijuana farms and other forms of “proactive policing.”

“Our ultimate concern is that drones become a tool for pervasive, routine, suspicionless surveillance,” says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberty Union’s (ACLU) Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “We don’t want to see them used for 24/7 tracking of vehicles or individuals, and over towns or cities or neighborhoods. We don’t want to see them used for individual suspicion. We don’t want them to be used in ways that are invasive.”