Report on Use of Drones by Public Safety Agencies

May 11, 2020 — In February 2019, the COPS Office, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) convened a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss the policy and operational issues regarding the implementation and use of drones. This publication synthesizes information presented and discussed by the conference participants; lessons learned; and promising practices gathered from interviews, policy reviews, and survey data for the purpose of providing law enforcement agencies with guidance on implementing a drone program.

The report focuses on two topics: first, the use of drones by police agencies to protect public safety and, conversely, the use of drones for malicious purposes, such as terrorism.

According to the report, drones are currently being used by law enforcement for a number of purposes, including search and rescue, traffic collision reconstruction, crime scene reconstruction, and investigation of armed and dangerous individuals. In a PERF survey, drones were used 90.82% of the time for search-and-rescue operations, and 84.69% of the time for crime scene photography and reconstruction.

Agencies considering the implementation of drone technology should find the first two sections of the document to be comprehensive. Topics include federal, state, and local regulations; communicating with the community prior to launching technology that could be viewed as suspicious or intrusive; training; who should operate the drones (civilian vs. sworn); and standard operating procedures—including sample language.

In the second section of the document, the authors explore the threat of criminals and terrorists leveraging drone technology for malicious acts. It states that a law passed in 2018 by Congress gave the DOJ and DHS counter-drone authority — but that authority does not currently extend to local law enforcement. That, the report said, is a concern.

"Experts at PERF's conference called for intensive efforts to 'catch up' with the new risks posed by drones," the authors wrote. "Some noted that the United States has been fortunate not to have experienced a major drone attack to date but said there is little to stop such an attack, especially with local police authority so limited."

You can download the full report here.

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