Law Enforcement Agencies in Sonoma County, Calif., Want Drones in Policing Toolkit

Before the technology can be in the field, interested agencies will need to make their case to the public and develop specific policies and procedures.

(TNS) -- Unmanned drones with high-definition cameras could take flight in Sonoma County skies next year to help law enforcement track suspects and assist in search-and-rescue operations for both the Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department.

But drones won’t get off the ground at either agency until specific policies and procedures are outlined, and residents have a chance to weigh in.

“Departments that have created drone programs in secret haven’t fared well,” said Santa Rosa Police Capt. Craig Schwartz, referencing controversial aerial surveillance in Seattle and San Jose. “(Drones) stir up a lot of feeling in the public. There are privacy concerns and concerns about the militarization of police.”

Schwartz has reached out to City Council members and community groups to pitch the drone program and to get feedback.

The Sheriff’s Office already has two drones, purchased in 2016 for $3,793, but has not used them in active law enforcement operations, said Sgt. Spencer Crum, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. One drone is intended for the search-and-rescue team and the other for the special operations unit.

“We are in the early stages of developing a drone program to include policy and procedure and community feedback,” Crum said by email.

Both Crum and Schwartz note that law enforcement would use the same drones available to the public at Amazon and Best Buy. Drones cost between $1,500 and $3,000 and can be equipped with thermal imaging cameras for an additional $10,000 to $15,000, Schwartz said.

A thermal imaging camera can detect a person’s body heat at night and also be used in firefighting to help detect the hottest spots in a blaze, Schwartz said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have expressed concern that the use of drones for surveillance could violate privacy rights.

Schwartz is currently enrolled in a master’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey where he is researching the use of drones by law enforcement and the accompanying privacy concerns. His thesis is titled “Big Brother or Trusted Allies?”

He said concerns about privacy rights can be ameliorated with guidelines that only allow the use of drones in emergency situations. He points to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office as a good example of how law enforcement can use unmanned aircraft.

Since that office began using drones in late 2015 it has flown more than 150 missions, said Sgt. Ray Kelly, spokesman for the department. But before drones took off more than a year of outreach and policy development was required.

“We have very strict guidelines that were developed with the county, the ACLU and community groups,” Kelly said. “Our policy is geared toward privacy.”

Both the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa police would like to implement drones for search-and-rescue efforts and tactical SWAT operations. Drones could also be used for crime scene preservation and to get aerial views in dangerous emergency situations.

“They’re not going to be used for general surveillance work,” Schwartz said. “The uses would be specific and limited.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said he does have some concerns about privacy and wouldn’t like to see drones flying in his neighborhood for general policing, but he does see some beneficial uses.

“(Drones) can be very intrusive and must be used judiciously,” Coursey said. “Done well they can be a good tool for the department under certain circumstances.”

©2017 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.