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Walpole, N.H., Police Near Completion of Drone Policy

The Walpole Police Department is finalizing its policy for the drone it bought last year. The department has been using it off and on since last summer, and some have voiced privacy concerns about the technology.

A closeup image of a camera lens on a drone.
A closeup of the camera lens on a drone.
(TNS) — The Walpole Police Department is finalizing a policy for a drone it bought last year and has been using occasionally since last summer.

Meeting minutes from May 26, 2022, state that the selectboard approved spending $14,332.99 for the drone from the police department revolving fund. The particular model noted in the minutes contains two camera lenses: a wide-angle lens with 4,000-pixel resolution and a lens that has an optical zoom of up to 16 times, according to the manufacturer's website. It also has two sensors: a laser rangefinder that can determine a subject's distance from the camera, and an infrared sensor that detects heat signatures for night observation.

Whether the town in fact bought this model is unclear, as Police Chief Justin Sanctuary declined to specify the model to a reporter, citing operational security concerns. But he said the money to purchase the equipment came from court fines rather than taxes.

As of 2020, seven New Hampshire law-enforcement agencies — N.H. State Police, the Strafford County Sheriff's Office and the Laconia, Lebanon, Manchester, Portsmouth and Danville police departments — were using drones, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, a research institution that catalogued drone technology use across the country.

The Cheshire County Sheriff's Office does not currently have one, but has "submitted a request to purchase one through a grant," Sheriff Eli Rivera wrote in an email.

Keene police Sgt. Luke Antin says the department has a drone it uses for search-and-rescue operations.

The bird's-eye view these devices offer can enhance law-enforcement efforts. But the added capabilities can also spur privacy concerns.

At a May 12, 2022, Walpole selectboard meeting, Sanctuary noted multiple uses for the equipment, including for search and rescue, barricaded individuals and looking for marijuana fields, meeting minutes state. However, resident Ann Shaughnessy brought concerns to the board that July after she said she saw the drone over someone's yard.

"I was sitting in my neighbor's backyard ... and it flew into her fenced-in backyard and hovered by a tree," Shaughnessy, of North Walpole, told The Sentinel earlier this month. She added that the device flew about 35 feet in the air.

On July 14, 2022, she recommended the town follow the American Civil Liberties Union's guidelines for police drones, meeting minutes indicate. These guidelines advise that policies and procedures for using the equipment are determined by the local governing body, rather than the police department. Selectboard member Peggy Pschirrer said the department had not yet drafted a policy, per the minutes.

Shaughnessy said she and her neighbors don't disagree with the police department owning a drone. However, she said she would "really like to see that it get[s] dispatched for situations, not dispatched for surveillance. Because that's what it feels like."

Frank Knaack, policy director for the ACLU-NH, expressed similar opinions about police drones.

"Our concern is not that this technology necessarily exists ... there are very legitimate, helpful purposes — public safety purposes — for this equipment," Knaack told The Sentinel in May. "Our concern often comes down to the fact that this technology is deployed without any guardrails, and particularly without any guardrails in advance of its deployment."

Sanctuary acknowledged such concerns but said he primarily intended to use Walpole's drone for search-and-rescue operations.

"No, we're not going around spying on people. We're not patrolling with it," Sanctuary told The Sentinel. "People have the right to privacy. And if we're obtaining evidence illegally, we're not going to have a [police department for] long, and we're not going to have a drone [for] long."


Sanctuary has drafted an eight-page policy for use of Walpole's drone that he said uses policies and guidelines from N.H. State Police and the N.H. Police Standards and Training Council.

The Walpole selectboard has reviewed the policy and approved it, Pschirrer wrote in an email, and Sanctuary said the only changes he expects to make before he signs it are to punctuation.

He added that he wrote the policy because the selectboard already has many other policies and matters to attend to, and that, while it will not be posted publicly, it will be available to people upon request.

Walpole's drafted policy focuses on proper uses, operational procedures and data storage. The document states that the drone should be deployed for situational awareness, search and rescue, tactical deployment — such as hostage situations or other large operations — to provide visual perspective for "crowd control, traffic incident management, drug enforcement activity, special circumstances, and temporary perimeter security." Other listed uses are incident command support and crime scene documentation.

For criminal investigations, "an officer shall consult with and must obtain approval from the authority having prosecutorial jurisdiction over the investigation," the document states. "This does not apply to UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] deployments for non-investigative public safety use or for training, testing, or evaluation of the UAV."

The policy also requires the department to log every deployment.

"We have used it a few times for public safety purposes to help out the fire department," Sanctuary wrote in an email to The Sentinel. "This was before [the department] had reporting in place. Currently when the drone is deployed, we will produce a call for service to document its use."

He added that training deployments have moved out of North Walpole to nearby fields to prevent situations where the drone flies over someone's house.

The draft policy requires all officers to be trained and hold a remote pilot airman certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, and bars adding weapons to the device, such as smoke canisters. It also states that the department will release an annual summary to the public of the drone's uses. So far, Sanctuary said all drone deployments had been training deployments, save for a few search-and-rescue assists.


Beyond having elected officials draft policy guidelines, Knaack, of the ACLU, also spoke about statewide ACLU-NH recommendations.

"There should be a state-level floor in place, which we unfortunately do not have, and we think the Legislature should put into place," Knaack said, suggesting the state introduce a law for police drones.

If such a law were to be enacted, Knaack suggested each community could decide whether to draft more stringent policies. He specified that the community should be "aware, educated and ... making [the policy] decision," rather than law enforcement.

He also expressed concern over adding certain technology to drones, including infrared cameras or facial recognition. The drone model cited in the Walpole minutes possesses infrared vision, which allows it to read heat signatures at night, according to the company's website.

The ACLU-NH hopes for statewide facial recognition policy as well, and Knaack pointed to a failed 2021 House bill that would have prohibited the state from using such technology. Currently, only the N.H. Department of Motor Vehicles is barred from doing so, based on RSA 263:40-b.

As for Walpole's drone, Shaughnessy expressed that her main focus is more public oversight of the technology. "It would be nice to get feedback from people as to what they feel like would be [an] appropriate use of the drone," she said.

©2023 The Keene Sentinel, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.