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As Oregon Public Safety Agencies Begin to Use Drones, Questions Arise

Police and fire departments in Eugene and Springfield have started to use the devices, but some are concerned about the privacy implications.

(TNS) Police had the place surrounded but needed a closer look.

So they sent in the drones.

Eugene police flew their drones late last month as they searched for a possible armed suspect hiding in a home, with one drone hovering high overhead and the second bobbing outside a second-story window. The Sept. 25 drone mission, one of seven so far since Eugene police acquired the drones in April, didn't reveal a suspect — he wasn't inside the home — but it reaffirmed the value of the high-tech tool.

Once just a fun toy for hobbyists and photographers, drones are becoming standard equipment for local police and fire departments, allowing them to do their jobs more efficiently while quickly and easily going places where people would be in danger.

But drones come with privacy concerns. Eugene police have addressed privacy in their drone policy, saying they won't fly for random surveillance.

Eugene police are in the middle of a one-year test program. The program allows police to fly drones to map crime scenes, aid the bomb squad, assist search-and-rescue teams, and help with "life safety incidents" as approved by the police chief.

The Springfield Police Department and Eugene Springfield Fire Department also have drones — a firefighter flew one over four burned homes on Oakdale Avenue in Springfield last Wednesday to capture images for the investigation of an arson fire.

Eugene Springfield Fire started its program about two years ago, and its hazardous material team manages the department's four consumer-grade drones — two DJI Phantom II drones, a DJI Matrice and a DJI Mavic — said Rachel Paakaula, a spokeswoman for the agency. Other agencies around Lane County are also considering adding drones, although smaller agencies, such as the Junction City Fire Department, might hold off for now.

Drones — also called unmanned aerial systems or quadcopters, when they have four rotors — are lightweight aircraft flown by remote control. Professional applications for drones, such as capturing news photos and video, are still being developed, and they continue to grow in popularity among hobbyists. The Federal Aviation Administration, which governs drones nationally, has registered 962,606 hobbyist drone owners and 272,828 individual commercial or public agency drones, said Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesman.

Oregon lawmakers in 2013 passed a law, House Bill 2710, that established guidelines for law enforcement agencies flying drones in the state. The rules allow agencies to operate a drone if there is an imminent threat to lives or safety, for search and rescue, and for crime-scene reconstruction. Depending on the situation, agencies might have to obtain warrants before flying and collecting information with a drone. The law prohibits agencies from arming drones.

Civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have questioned what will happen to data gathered by drones.

The ACLU put out a report in 2011, before drones became important tools for police departments.

"The report recommends that drones should not be deployed unless there are grounds to believe that they will collect evidence on a specific crime," according to the ACLU. "If a drone will intrude on reasonable privacy expectations, a warrant should be required. The report also calls for restrictions on retaining images of identifiable people, as well as an open process for developing policies on how drones will be used."

The ACLU pushed for the 2013 law in Oregon, said ACLU of Oregon spokeswoman Sarah Armstrong.

She emphasized that police must have a warrant — approval from a judge to investigate someone for a specific crime based on initial information — before snooping on people with drones.

"They can't just indiscriminately surveil people with them," she said.

Test flights

Eugene police's 12-month test program started April 23. The department has two drones: a DJI Phantom 4 Pro and a DJI Mavic Pro Platinum, said Sgt. Kyle Williams, who leads the program.

"They are both equipped with standard cameras," he wrote in an email. "We are currently experimenting with super bright red and blue (anti-collision) lights to help make police drones more visible to the public."

Eugene police have spent about $5,000 on the equipment. They have two FAA-certified drone pilots, Williams said.

The initial money came from a state workers compensation fund, Williams said. "This fund is available when employees get injured on the job, and helps to purchase equipment and training to provide them with work while they recover from the injury," he said. "We had a detective injured and were able to utilize his FAA experience to help with the initial mentorship of the two EPD pilots."

The agency's plan details how it intends to utilize drones for collecting information about suspicious devices and for Amber alerts, among other uses. It also describes what Eugene police won't use drones for, including conducting surveillance at random, profiling or harassing. Once the one-year pilot program is complete, Williams will file a report to Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner and the Eugene police commission. Williams will evaluate in the report whether the program is worth extending and expanding.

Skinner, who became Eugene police chief in late April, has shown an eagerness for high-tech policing. Last week he introduced three video surveillance trailers now keeping watch on parts of downtown Eugene.

"We just need to be able to leverage technology to be more efficient," Skinner said.

So far, Eugene Springfield Fire has used its drones sparingly. The most noteworthy mission was the evaluation of a fuel tanker rollover in June 2017 along Highway 126, said Paakaula, the spokeswoman. The department's drone program is expanding to water rescues, she added.

"Water rescue calls are sometimes delayed due to travel time, launching the boat and searching the area," she said. "By utilizing a drone we expect to locate the incident and determine the immediate need of rescue resources."

Eventually, she said Eugene Springfield Fire crews might take drones with them when responding to fire calls.

Preparing for takeoff

Springfield police Lt. Scott McKee said the department is still drafting a policy for use of its drone, which was provided by an anonymous donor six months ago. "Any policy would have to have specific guidelines as to how it could be deployed," he said.

Potential uses include searching for fugitives and taking aerial photos and videos of crime scenes, McKee said. The department is consulting with legal experts to ensure the policy addresses any privacy concerns.

Lane Fire Authority officials are considering adding drones, Chief Terry Ney said. The agency provides fire protection in rural Lane County and unincorporated neighborhoods near Eugene, where its fire crews respond to wildland and structure fires. A drone could be very helpful for firefighters tackling brush fires or house fires, he said.

"It just gives you an overall view, literally a bird's-eye view that you won't have from the ground," Ney said. "We've had structure fires where it's difficult to get to a backside of a house because things are in the way, and to be able to immediately have a drone that you could put up is a useful tool."

Holding pattern

Eugene Springfield Fire and Lane Fire Authority have bigger budgets than the Junction City Fire Department, Junction City Fire Chief Brandon Nicol said. The cost, plus the amount of federal regulation surrounding drones, is keeping him from pursuing a drone for his department.

"They make you jump through too many hoops to use (a drone)," Nicol said. "Right now it is definitely not a thought on the forefront."

©2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.