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Massachusetts City Worries Police Drones May Target Homeless

Police Chief Steven Sargent has been working to allay councilor concerns that an unmanned drone his department is looking to purchase could negatively impact the city’s homeless population.

(TNS) — Police Chief Steven Sargent has been working to allay councilors concerns that an unmanned drone his department is looking to purchase could negatively impact the city’s homeless population.

District 3 Councilor George Russell asked Sargent if the department planned on using the drone to followed unhoused people at a Worcester City Council meeting on Tuesday, to which Sargent responded, “Absolutely not.”

Sargent said the department would put language in the drone policy to protect against it.

Worcester City Councilors and the public will get another chance to make their feelings known about a policy for the drone, despite the ultimate decision about the police purchasing the device lying with the city manager.

Councilors voted 8-3 to send the policy for the drone to the council’s Committee on Public Safety. District 5 Councilor Etel Haxhiaj and Councilors At-Large Khrystian King and Thu Nguyen voted against the measure.

The three councilors, along with members of the public, have expressed concern about the impact to the homeless population.

In a letter to the City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. explaining what the drone could be used for, Sargent said it would assist the city’s Quality of Life Task Force when searching for homeless encampments.

Sargent also said the drone could be search and rescue missions, motor vehicle crash investigations/crime scene mapping and as a de-escalation tool in hostage negotiations.

The day after the meeting Sargent clarified with MassLive the drone “would identify people who need services.”

“Now, today, if somebody called for the middle of the woods in Greenhill Park, there’s a small fire there,” Sargent said, “There’s seven people in there. What are we going to do? We’re going to say, ‘Okay, now we’re going to walk the two miles into the woods, with the Quality of Life team and identify them if we can. But if we put a drone up, and we see where they are, then we’re going to walk in the woods anyways, but at least we’ll know where they are.”

At Tuesday’s meeting King said he was looking at the situation from a clinical lens, as a Masters level clinician for well over a decade, and thought of the use of a drone in relation to someone suffering from mental health issues.

“Those folks if we’re using drones in this manner that are following them...can really exacerbate their mental health conditions significantly,” King said, “The results of which could end up being fatal.”

Haxhiaj said in a meeting with homeless services providers, she heard “providers who do not feel comfortable with carving out a use for the drone in connection with the Quality of Life Task Force unless it is in response to a missing persons report.”

Some councilors expressed their support of the police purchasing a drone.

“I just hope that we can understand that this is a tool for good,” Councilor At-Large Kathleen Toomey said, “It’s not a tool to go out and hunt people or issues or whatever.”

Toomey raised how the drone could be helpful with a hazmat issue or at the scene of a major accident or fire.

District 2 Candy Mero-Carlson called for the council to be proud and stand shoulder to shoulder with the police department.

“I don’t believe that our chief is looking to do anything to harm somebody or get into taking away somebody’s civil liberties,” Mero-Carlson said.

Councilor Sean Rose called for both sides to come together.

“Our jobs are to offer transparency through committee with the second look, if you will, of approval through City Council,” Rose said, “I think that we need to stop looking at each other being on side or putting up walls as it relates to these matters and instead try to find common ground.”

Both sides have the same goal to improve the quality of life and the safety of their constituents, Rose said.

The City council has discussed the police department obtaining a drone at various meetings in “a public vetting of the proposal to acquire surveillance technology,” City Solicitor Michael Traynor said at a public hearing related to the purchase of the drone, but “there’s no formal approval or veto power by the City Council in this process.”

The discussions with the council and the committee meetings about the drones weren’t required, Augustus said Tuesday at the council meeting.

“This is what we are doing not because we have to but because we believe in transparency and get the public and the Council’s buy in on something as important as this,” Augustus said.

Augustus acknowledged that he believes there are ways that a drone could be used that would infringe on civil liberties and civil rights.

“And that’s why we have a policy that is going to protect from those possibilities,” Augustus said.

The police department issued a draft policy on April 22.

The upcoming public hearing will allow the Committee on Public Safety to go over the draft in more detail, line by line, according to Augustus.

“I did ask the Chief to look at the ACLU feedback, so he’ll be prepared in order to react to some of that at the committee meeting,” Augustus said.

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