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Promising Practices: Police (and Beyond) Drone Programs

Each week I scan the web for information about promising practices from a variety of local government think-tanks, professional organizations, news media, academia, and other related sources, to share with MRSC’s Insight Blog and e-newsletter readers. This post highlights promising practices in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, for law enforcement and other purposes.

Successful Implementation of UAV Programs

UAV programs hold strong promise for use in several local government program areas but the implementation of new programs presents complex challenges (e.g., compliance with extensive federal regulations and requirements) and potential roadblocks (e.g., public concerns over issues like privacy rights) that must be addressed.

In recent years UAV capabilities have been increasing rapidly while at the same time costs have been decreasing, making them more attractive for local governments. While many jurisdictions may begin with law enforcement-related applications, drones can be used in a variety of other service areas including public works, fire, planning, and more.

While UAVs are commonly referred to as drones, some local government agencies are purposely avoiding this term in favor of “UAV” or other similar terms, to avoid the connotations associated with the use of weaponized military drones.

Two programs in Washington, one in the City of Pullman and the other in the City of Tukwila, offer several valuable insights and promising practices for successful UAV program implementation and deployment.

Pullman’s UAV Program Promotes Use of Drones Beyond Law Enforcement

The City of Pullman recently received an Outstanding Achievement in Local Government Innovation Award from the Alliance for Innovation for its police department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program.

Pullman’s police UAS program is being used for search & rescue, traffic coordination, outdoor crime scene and traffic collision documentation, tactical deployment (SWAT), and other law enforcement purposes. The police department is also participating with Washington State University in a research project examining the use of drones in law enforcement. The department teamed up WSU to hold a series of community meetings to introduce the program and receive public input.

Pullman’s program was also recognized by the Alliance for Innovation for their use of UAVs in local government program areas beyond law enforcement. Multi-use programs that showcase the value of UAVs for purposes beyond law enforcement, such as public works (infrastructure inspection), fire (incident command), land use planning (aerial views of land use proposals), and GIS (data capture), show promise in gaining overall public support and acceptance for UAV programs, and it doesn’t hurt to have cross-departmental program support as well.

Learn more about Pullman’s UAS program from the Pullman Police Department:

  • Policy 604: This policy establishes guidelines for the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems for the “storage, retrieval and dissemination of images and data captured by the UAS.”
  • Press Release: This 2017 press releases announces a Public Meeting being held to provide information on the department’s UAS program.
  • Drone Program YouTube video

Additionally, this Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) May 31, 2019 podcast on Policing & Drones features Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins.

Tukwila’s UAV Program Addresses Privacy Concerns

One of the keys to the successful implementation of law enforcement UAV programs centers on how public concerns over privacy rights are addressed both before and after a new program is launched.

Promising practices adopted in Tukwila’s UAV program included a proactive citizen engagement and communications process describing the benefits of the UAV program and explaining how these tools will and will not be used (prior to roll-out) and the adoption of a comprehensive policy (included in the links below) that establishes clear limits on the use of UAVs, documentation of operations, and abuse prevention and accountability measures, as the program has gotten underway.

Tukwila’s deployment strategies were based on techniques and recommendations gathered from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Washington State Office of Privacy Protections.

For more on Tukwila’s UAV program see the following:

For a national perspective on UAV programs, I recommend the following:

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.