Howard County, Md., Police Purchase Drones for New Study

The Howard County, Md., Police Department will purchase three drones for field testing that will span an entire year, making the choice seven months after disbanding its aviation program, according to a news release.

by Jess Nocera, The Baltimore Sun / November 5, 2019

(TNS) — The Howard County, Md., Police Department will purchase three drones for a one-year field test, seven months after disbanding its aviation program, according to a Monday news release.

In March, police announced the aviation program would end in April due to the county’s anticipated deficit. In May, a 20-person workgroup was formed to evaluate the possible use of drones for police operations. Monday’s announcement in purchasing the drones comes from the group’s recommendation, police said.

Together, the three drones will cost $38,400, according to police.

“I really believe the use of drone technology will help us respond to crime scenes faster and more efficiently,” Howard Police Chief Lisa Myers said in an interview Monday.

The workgroup examined drone use in law enforcement, such as transparency, training, usefulness and privacy issues.

Following guidelines from the American Civil Liberties Union, Howard police will “ensure the community can benefit from drone technology without privacy concerns,” according to the release.

Myers said one of the first things the department did was contact the ACLU to identify appropriate guidelines and practices to follow.

“We want to make sure our citizens feel comfortable with us using drones,” Myers said.

Drone images will not be kept unless there is “reasonable suspicion” the photographs showcase evidence of criminal activity or are relevant to any pending criminal trial or ongoing investigation, the release states. Police will delete any other images.

The drones will be used in situations when “life and safety are at risk” or when there is “specific and articulable grounds” that the drones will collect evidence relating to criminal activity, police said.

The drones “will not be used for mass surveillance that could violate First Amendment-protected activities,” police said.

In Maryland, the Annapolis Office of Emergency Management, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and EMS Department, the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and EMS, the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department, and St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office all use drone technology, according to a 2018 report by Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

Howard’s field test will begin with as many as 10 police officers who will respond to incidents when a drone is needed. Staying in their current assignments, the officers will be trained to become certified remote pilots, required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Trained officers will be able to deploy a drone from their vehicle, allowing a drone to get to a crime scene in minutes, Myers said.

In August, a personal drone located Jason Blake Mabee, an Ellicott City resident who had been missing for more than five days. In a matter of minutes, the drone owned by Severn resident Julian Bustos found Mabee lying down in a wooded area near the intersection of Presbyterian Circle and Route 108 in Columbia.

The drones “will improve our abilities to be quicker, more agile, and more effective at protecting our residents. We are committed to using best practices that will improve safety for our officers while protecting the civil liberties of all of our residents,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement.

Citizens will be able to follow the field test progress online, where additional information such as a frequently asked question section will be provided, Myers said.

“We’re just excited about leveraging new technology,” she said.

Myers expects the field test period to begin in January.

©2019 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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