Drones, which have been used by U.S. law enforcement agencies for several years, are seen as an invaluable tool. But they sometimes get pushback due to privacy concerns.  -  Photo: Canva/Government Fleet

Drones, which have been used by U.S. law enforcement agencies for several years, are seen as an invaluable tool. But they sometimes get pushback due to privacy concerns.

Photo: Canva/Government Fleet

The use of drones by police departments to assist with investigations and other incident response is growing across the U.S., though not without backlash. Here is a look at some of the latest headlines involving police drones:

  • Judge rules California police department can't withhold all drone footage.
  • Kentucky bill would set limits on where drones can capture video.
  • Mayor hopes police drone use in city in New York will create more efficient police response.
  • Police drone helps Tennessee firefighters contain fire.

Judge Rules California Police Department Can't Withhold all Drone Footage

The first police department in the nation that was granted approval to use drones is at the center of a dispute regarding footage. 

A California appeals court recently determined the Chula Vista Police Department does not have a blanket excuse to keep all of its drone footage secret. 

According to Times of San Diego, experts believe this is the first time drone footage release was debated at an appellate court level. 

The decision came after Arturo “Art” Castañares, editor and publisher of a Latino news publication, sued the agency under the California Public Records Act but lost in a San Diego Superior Court in April 2023, according to Times of San Diego.

Castañares requested information related to the city's use of drones, including video footage for all drone flights from March 2021. According to the California Court of Appeal opinion, the agency only provided Castañares with the information he requested — minus the video footage — after he filed suit against the city.

When the suit went to trial, the superior court determined the footage was exempt from being shared under a California law that allows agencies to hold onto information and media that may be deemed as records of investigations.

Castañares asked the Court of Appeal to direct the superior court to vacate its order and order the city to release the footage. The city then requested the court clarify the scope of its obligation to provide the drone footage.

The appellate court agreed with Castañares that the court erred in determining that all footage is exempt. However, the court also noted that after further inquiry into the specific footage, it may be determined that the majority of the footage is exempt because it may in fact be connected with investigations. 

Additionally, the appellate court acknowledged that the provision of the California Public Records Act may also support the city's position that the footage does not need to be provided. 

Ultimately, the appellate court sent the case back to the superior court to take further action based on the appellate court's decision that Castañares was partially correct that not all drone footage is exempt from being shared.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Aaron David Mackey told Times of San Diego that the opinion is a great win for public access to police drone footage. 

The Chula Vista Police Department launched the nation's first Drone as a First Responder program in October 2018, Government Fleet previously reported.

Kentucky Bill Would Set Limits on Where Drones Can Capture Video

A bill in the Kentucky General Assembly centered around privacy would set restrictions on emerging technologies used by law enforcement agencies, including drones.

House Bill 45 would, among other things, define terms and establish limitations on the use of unmanned aircraft systems — more commonly known as drones.

Essentially, people flying drones would be banned from recording images of privately owned property without the owner or occupant’s "written consent."

Exemptions to this would include police that have a search warrant, law enforcement agencies that believe someone’s life is in danger, and property appraisers — so long as they also have written permission from a property owner.

The bill comes as many states and local governments weigh whether the use of drones by law enforcement violate private citizens' privacy.

The bill would also regulate the data collected by police license plate readers —  establishing regulations like how long agencies can keep license plate data. Under the bill, agencies would be allowed to store the data for longer than 30 days unless it's being used in a felony prosecution or is subject to a subpoena, WDRB reported.

House Bill 45 was introduced to the Committee on Committees on Jan. 2, 2024.

Mayor Hopes Police Drone use in City in New York will Create More Efficient Police Response

The Schenectady Police Department will soon have two drones to use for its own Drone as a First Responder program. The city council approved a resolution authorizing a six-year contract with Brinc Drones to purchase two LEMUR 2 drones.

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy told WAMC that the drones could help enhance the response to reported crimes in progress. He also said the drones could be more efficiently dispatched to non-violent and quality-of-life incidents.

In one example, he said a drone could be used to address noise complaints. The drone would be dispatched to validate the report and allow police officers to call the people at the location to addreses the situation.

A FEMA grant of nearly $40,000 will help cover part of the cost of the drones for the first year.

The drones are expected to be fully deployed in Schenectady next year.

Police Drone Helps Tennessee Firefighters Contain Fire

The Morristown Police Department's drone, which has thermal imaging capabilities, helped firefighters locate trouble spots to contain the fire.  -  Photo: City of Morristown

The Morristown Police Department's drone, which has thermal imaging capabilities, helped firefighters locate trouble spots to contain the fire.

Photo: City of Morristown

Firefighers were able to contain a large fire in a historic downtown area in Morristown, Tennessee, thanks to help from a police drone.

The police department’s drone with thermal imaging capabilities played a critical role in identifying problem areas throughout the event," Morristown Fire Marshal Billy Hale stated in a Facebook post.

The Parks-Belk building, which was vacant and beginning renovation efforts, caught fire on the night of Jan. 2. Hale told WATE that the drone's thermal imaging helped firefighters direct water toward hot spots on a wall toward another building, keeping the fire from spreading.

The city stated in a Facebook post that two of the police department's drone unit members used the drone to see where the fire was spreading and notified firefighters.

The video below shows imaging from the drone while firefighters were battling the fire.

The Morristown Police Department's five-member drone unit was established in 2019 and uses drone technology to assist law enforcement with search and rescue efforts, criminal apprehension, traffic and crime scene processing, and public event monitoring.

About the author
Christy Grimes

Christy Grimes

Senior Editor

Christy Grimes is a Senior Editor at Bobit, working on Automotive Fleet and Government Fleet publications. She has also written for School Bus Fleet.

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