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WSPD joins other law enforcement agencies in acquiring drones, prompting privacy concerns

The Winston-Salem Police Department now has drones.

During a public safety committee meeting on Monday, Assistant Police Chief Wilson Weaver led a presentation in which he outlined how and when four new drones would be used by the department.

The drones, which are called small, unmanned aircraft systems or sUAS, were acquired by the department through city funds and a partnership with the Winston-Salem Police Foundation. The total cost came to about $10,000 for all four drones. Each drone has at least one camera; two are equipped with infrared technology and two cameras each. According to Lt. John D. Morris of the Special Operations Division, which will oversee the drone unit, the program went live on Tuesday. While the department addressed privacy concerns about the usage of the drones, some members of the community say they believe the drones will do more harm than good.

Weaver started the presentation off by immediately acknowledging concerns from the community.

“We understand that our residents may have concerns of the law enforcement use of this technology,” Weaver said on Monday. “We are aware of community concerns of potential invasions of privacy…. The [drone] program will not be utilized as a general surveillance platform…. We will not be flying into our residents’ backyards, looking into their windows to invade their privacy.”

Instead, Weaver noted that the drones will be used primarily for crime-scene documentation, traffic-scene documentation, to help aid in searching for missing persons, large-event monitoring and during severe-weather responses. During the presentation, Weaver and others with the police department explained that the drones could be used any time of day, even at night, but each one can has a maximum battery life of about 25 minutes. The flight range for each drone is about 3.7 miles and only officers trained and licensed through the Federal Aviation Administration will be allowed to operate them. The drones do not have microphones, and thus cannot capture audio.

The drones can only be operated by officers who acquire FAA certifications, according to the WSPD. (screenshot)

During the meeting, almost all of the committee members expressed outright support for the new technology.

“I’m very much in favor of this,” said Councilmember Kevin Mundy of the Southwest Ward. “I feel like we need to be in front of the technology curve rather than behind it.”

Mundy’s enthusiasm was echoed by other committee members such as John Larson who represents the South Ward and Barbara Burke of the Northeast Ward.

“I’m excited about the position that it will put the police department in to be more efficient with the job that you’re already doing,” Burke said. She immediately followed up that sentiment by encouraging the department, again, to stress to the public how the technology would not be used for surveillance.

“I just want to say that I know, with the messaging, you will be careful to make sure that the public understands without a doubt that this technology will not be used in any way as a surveillance platform,” Burke said.

Despite the councilmembers’ reiteration and the police department’s insistence that the drones will not be used for surveillance, some members of the community remain concerned about the new technology.

“Our initial response is that we’re disappointed and don’t want to have this in our community at all,” said Bailey Pittenger, a member of the Triad Abolition Project. “It’s an invasion of privacy. This is an example of mission creep. Although there is an outline for what the drones can be used for, there’s no guarantee that that’s all it will be used for.”

Pittenger pointed out the capturing of data and footage by the drones.

“Where are these videos going?” she asked.

During Monday’s presentation, Capt. Brian Dobey explained that data from the drones would be stored in the department’s Axon evidence files. Morris with the WSPD replied to an email by TCB that the data would be “stored as per departmental policies and rules of evidence” but did not specify how long the data would be stored for.

Like body-worn camera footage, the data collected by police drones is not public record and is restricted in the state of North Carolina. In February, state Sen. Paul Lowe of Forsyth County filed SB 109, which would allow city officials to view police footage without a court order. The bill passed its first reading and was referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations.

With its acquisition on Tuesday, the Winston-Salem Police Department becomes the fourth law enforcement agency in the area to own drones. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office currently has four drones, and the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department has five, two of which were purchased this year. The Greensboro Police Department has two drones for daily use and one for training purposes. TCB could not confirm whether the High Point Police Department has drones at this time.

Two of the drones have infrared technology but none have microphones for capturing sound. (screenshot)

According to data collected by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in 2020, the number of drones being used by law enforcement agencies across the country is on the rise. Based on their report, at least 1,578 state and local safety agencies in the US have acquired drones. In 2018, that number was closer to 1,000. Currently, 70 percent of drones are being used by law enforcement agencies like police and sheriffs’ departments versus other safety agencies like fire departments. In North Carolina, close to two dozen law enforcement agencies currently own drones.

Law enforcement officers and public officials who support the usage of drones say that they will help ensure public safety and enable officers to be more efficient. According to research by Purdue University in 2019, drones were shown to be more effective and safer in crash-mapping car highway accidents than conventional methods.

Civil rights advocates are voicing concerns that the usage of drones is an expansion of policing in an era when national conversations around law enforcement have been on the rise since the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“Given how racism is deeply rooted in the criminal legal system, it’s not hard to imagine that law enforcement could use drones in ways that disproportionately infringe upon the rights of Black and Brown community members,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, the director of communications for the ACLU of North Carolina. “The adoption of drones can be seen as another way our law enforcement agencies are militarizing. Our communities expect law enforcement to respect civil rights and civil liberties. Spending taxpayer funds on drones is another example of why there is strong community support for divesting municipal funds from law enforcement agencies and reinvesting that money in community support programs.”

Another concern by activists is the lack of uniformity drones usage by law enforcement agencies nationwide. Despite their growing popularity, currently no national law dictates how drones can be used by law enforcement. In NC, GS 15A-300.1 outlines rules of how drones can or cannot be used. The law bans the use of drones to “conduct surveillance of a person or a dwelling occupied by a person… without that person’s consent.” The law makes a number of exceptions for drones used by law enforcement. Among them include the use of drones to counter terrorist attacks and to conduct surveillance “in an area that is within the law enforcement officer’s plain view.” Officers can also use drones if the agency “possesses reasonable suspicion that… swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property….” The drones can be used to “photograph gatherings to which the general public is invited on public or private land” as well.

Opponents of drones say there is potential that exceptions like these in state laws will allow police to use drones to infringe on rights like free speech. Last year, police in Arizona used drone footage to arrest three Black Lives Matter protesters whom they say were stopping traffic outside a bookstore. In California, some law enforcement agencies are using drones that have AI technology, allowing them to operate without pilots, much like self-driving cars. Instances like these, while they have yet to take place locally, are causes for concern, Chicurel-Bayard said.

“Innocent people may fear punishment if they exercise their First Amendment rights on issues where they disagree with the government,” they said. “While some reasonable restrictions generally provide some limit for the use of drones by law enforcement, allowing the use of drones in areas where the public is invited to gather, on public or private land, certainly raises privacy concerns.”

In Greensboro, drones manned by the police department have been deployed approximately six times since last year, mostly for things like crash reconstruction investigations and search warrants, according to Public Information Officer Ron Glenn.

LaShanda Millner-Murphy of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office explained that “if there are grounds to believe that the [drone] will collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing and/or if it will be used in a manner that will intrude upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, we will obtain a search warrant prior to conducting the flight.”

Because the use of drones by police is a relatively new phenomenon, not much comprehensive data has been gathered on how the technology has been applied. And with limited data and lack of oversight, Pittenger said she’s concerned about the effects drones will have on communities.

“It doesn’t make our communities safer,” she said. “When we expand policing, we’re expanding more profiling of our Black and brown communities…. It’s just going to supply more demand for policing and more people in the jail. It’s important to understand that policing isn’t just the police brutality aspect, it’s also the systemic aspect of mass incarceration.”


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