Connecticut Police Wait for State Drone Regulations Before Investing in the Tech

Drones have many practical uses in the public safety arena, but police are hesitant to use them before legislation is established.

by Lindsay Boyle, The Day, New London, Conn. / January 23, 2017

(TNS) — Across the region, police officials have big ideas about how drones could bolster residents’ safety and well being.

They could spot missing people, houses with blight or uncovered manholes. They could document accident scenes from the sky. They could determine when a roof is so hot it’s about to collapse, and be sent to find obstacles in tactical situations.

Few are disputing the likely value of the technology, still in its infancy. But locally, many police chiefs are waiting for state lawmakers to establish legislation concerning drone use before they invest in the technology.

“I would kind of like to have one,” said Groton City police Chief Thomas Davoren, noting that it could be used to track down blight. “But the rules are changing so quickly. I would hate to invest in something and then not be able to use it.”

Such legislation has been proposed in Connecticut and passed one chamber in each of the last two legislative sessions. But it’s failed — primarily because of time, not opposition — to pass both and be signed into law.

According to David McGuire, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the ACLU, the organization is pushing to have similar legislation proposed again this year.

“This is useful technology that can help increase public safety,” McGuire said. “We in fact want police to be able to use it, but to use it appropriately without violating people’s privacy.”

Last year, the bill included provisions that would ban the use of weaponized drones in most situations, make police get a warrant to collect footage except during certain emergencies and give police-related organizations just more than a year to provide recommendations for policy regarding the retention of data collected by drones.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 131-14. It never made it to the Senate floor.

McGuire suggested the public should be louder about the legislation so it gets considered and passed. He said it’s “a really good sign” that law enforcement officials are looking for guidance, but that police using the technology without regulations is problematic.

“Law enforcement by their nature in trying to keep us safe often push the limits,” McGuire said. “We want them to vigorously defend our safety. But without meaningful rules, it’s impossible to know where the lines are.”

Across the state, McGuire said he knows of three police departments that are using drones: Hartford, Woodbury and Plainfield.

In Plainfield, police were able to purchase a drone with a thermal-imaging, high-resolution camera and an ability to go 60 mph solely because of a $10,000 donation, according to the Norwich Bulletin. There, police reported planning to use the drone to find missing people and document crash scenes.

But cost is not the barrier most chiefs expressed.

Groton Town police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr., whose 21-plus years with the state police include time in the counterterrorism and emergency services units, brought up the use of helicopters as a point of comparison. He estimated it takes between $800 and $1,500 to keep one in the air for an hour. The cost to put a drone in the air for the same amount of time?

“Peanuts,” he said.

Still, Fusaro said his department hasn’t discussed acquiring one. Privacy is an issue, he said, and so, too, is safety. Should a drone go out of range or run out of battery power, he explained, it could hit somebody or something on its way down.

“There are definitely advantages, but the technology is relatively new,” he said. “Just like a lot of other things, the laws haven’t caught up to it.”

According to Stonington police Capt. Todd Olson, his department isn’t planning on using a drone anytime soon.

Ledyard police Lt. Ken Creutz said his force has discussed the devices conceptually but also is waiting for policy before making any moves.

“We’re relatively new here as independent police department and trying to get normal operating scenarios down smoothly before we try to introduce newer-edge technology like that,” he said. “But I’m sure it will be a consideration down the road.”

In Waterford, however, police Chief Brett Mahoney said his department, along with other town agencies, has seriously discussed bringing a drone on board.

Like Plainfield, Waterford is a heavily wooded town. Since police purchased ATVs years ago, Mahoney said, they’ve been deployed countless times — sometimes to recover stolen vehicles, sometimes to find people who’ve gone missing.

Drones, he said, could expand the department’s search capabilities “tenfold.”

Mahoney, however, said he and others envision any drone that comes to Waterford as a town-wide asset.

In large-scale storms, emergency management officials could use the drone to map the damage and let residents know what’s going on. In fires, the drone’s thermal camera could warn firefighters a roof is hot and susceptible to collapse. When manhole covers are stolen for scrap, the drone could make the pollution control authority aware of it sooner.

As for privacy issues, Mahoney said Waterford’s drone would be used solely “from a community safety perspective” and wouldn’t be used for surveillance.

He said the department is looking for grant opportunities so the town doesn’t have to foot the bill. From there, it will have to apply for licenses, get approval, set policy and then buy the equipment and train some officers and other officials.

Mahoney expects all of that will happen within the next two years.

Drones are “another thing we’re going to have to deal with,” Mahoney said. “If we’re going to have to deal with it, we should also be allowed to take advantage of it.”

©2017 The Day (New London, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.