Police Department demonstrates new drone, to help allay concerns
The Seattle Police Department's acquisition of an unmanned aerial vehicle has raised issues about privacy and the use of technology in law enforcement.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Police Department's drone doesn't look like much of a threat in person. In fact, it looks like a toy.
In a warehouse where police vehicles are stored, Officer Reuben Omelanchuk on Friday demonstrated how the unmanned aerial vehicle hovers and flies.
"It's very fun," said Omelanchuk, who is one of department's two officers trained to fly the vehicles. "But doing it safely can be stressful at times."
The 3.5 pound Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Tech cost $41,000 and is operated with a handheld controller and two joysticks. It has cameras that take still pictures, videos and infrared shots that can be viewed live, but it has a battery life of less than 10 minutes. It can't carry anything that weighs more than 35 ounces.
It also can't be flown around people or over crowds.
Still, the Police Department's acquisition of the unmanned aerial vehicle and its recent approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate the drone has raised issues about privacy, the use of technology in law enforcement and the alleged militarization of police work.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has issued a report saying that current laws are inadequate to safeguard citizen privacy.
The proposed use of drones in Seattle should prompt city leaders to draft policies and procedures that set strict guidelines on when and how the vehicles can be used, what information will be gathered, with whom it will be shared and how long it will be stored, said ACLU Washington spokesman Doug Honig.
Aerial drones, which can be tiny or as large as an aircraft, are most commonly known through the military's use of them in the Middle East and Asia. But they have numerous domestic uses, according to the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicles International.
The FAA has set strict guidelines for the use of drones in law enforcement, according to Lt. Greg Sackman, who runs the Police Department's Arson/Bomb Squad and oversees the unmanned-vehicle program.
FAA requirements state drones must be flown below 400 feet and remain within eyesight of an operator as well as an observer at all times.
Further, for safety reasons, police cannot fly drones over an area with people, according to the FAA. In addition, Sackman said, the Police Department has drafted policies to prevent unauthorized, inappropriate or illegal use of the drones.
Those restrictions, coupled with the vehicle's limitations, mean the Seattle police drone will never be seen cruising around over crowds, fishing for information or surveilling people at random, he said.
Sackman said police primarily envision using the drone to take aerial photos of traffic collisions, or in situations where a person is barricaded in an area or building. The purpose would be to see if the person has hostages or weapons.
He said firefighters and smoke jumpers also have expressed interest in using the drones, which ultimately will be available to other public-safety agencies in the region.
"They want to use them to find hot spots," he said. "Everyone who has seen it says, 'we can use it.' "
Sackman, a colonel in the Army Reserves, said he saw firsthand the benefits of drones during deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
"They save lives," he said, describing how a convoy might send a drone over a hill to see if troubles lay ahead.
Sackman said the money to buy the department's two drones — one of which is in the hands of the King County Sheriff's Office — came through a regional grant from the federal Urban Area Security Initiative.
Sackman said the cost to run the program will be minimal and come from his budget.
While the department would like to have two officers trained, available and on-call 24 hours a day and seven days a week, that doesn't mean it will cost the department two additional officer salaries, Sackman said.
He said that Omelanchuk and Officer Jim Britt, the other trained operator, will continue doing their regular police work when the drone is not needed.
In response to concerns about privacy, the city has asked police to make a presentation to the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee on May 2 at 2 p.m.
Mayor Mike McGinn said in a statement Friday that unmanned aerial vehicles are an affordable alternative to a helicopter.
Nevertheless, he said, "I understand people's concerns about how the Police Department might use an unmanned aerial vehicle."
He said the drones will not be used until publicly vetted policies are in place.
"We will work with the community, ACLU and SPD to set very clear policy to ensure your privacy rights are not violated and implement measures to hold the city accountable," Councilmember Bruce Harrell said.
Britt said the department knows errors in judgment could draw criticism and scrutiny to the police force and jeopardize future use of the unmanned vehicles.
"We are doing everything above board," he said. "Anything else would be inappropriate in a country and city that loves its freedom."
Mary Fan, a University of Washington law professor, said it will be interesting to see what safeguards the Police Department voluntarily adopts.
"The law is glacial compared to the fast rate of technology," she said, "so Seattle police will have the opportunity to be a leader if it can impose self-discipline and self-restraint."
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org