Mesa County Police Have Been Using Drones For Years, Still Coming Up With Rules On Useby Timothy Geigner
Dec. 19, 2012
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The march towards drones becoming a common tool for domestic law enforcement agencies seems inevitable and some people aren't happy about it. We've already covered the backlash against one artist who satarized New York City's drone program. San Diego, for their part, valiantly refused to honor an FOIA request on their domestic UAV program because they determined on their own that there wouldn't be a public benefit to the disclosure. MuckRock thought that was a dodge not afforded San Diego under FOIA rules, but San Diego again declined to say anything at all about the program.
"Sorry, citizen, but Detective Iron Death-Spy is very, very shy."
Image source: CC BY 2.0
But one thing that has generally been accepted is that law enforcement agencies were required to operate these drones under very strict guidelines and within very strict geographic boundaries. It would appear, for Mesa County, Colorado at least, that may not be universally true. The EFF's Drone Census project has uncovered that Mesa County has two UAVs and can operate them without many of the restrictions in place elsewhere.
The MCSO must abide by standard FAA restrictions on domestic UAV flights, which cap flights to below 400 feet and preclude night flights or operating over "populated areas, heavily trafficked roads, or an open-air assembly of people." But MCSO's drone authorization includes no geographic restrictions: effectively, the agency can fly its UAVs anywhere in Mesa County. This freedom has allowed the agency to log dozens of operational missions since fall 2010. MCSO flight logs indicate that its UAV team has logged more than 160 flight hours on its drones since January 2011.So, whereas other UAV programs are restricted to flying over areas where they could chiefly assist in locating missing people in difficult to surveil areas, Mesa County can fly them anywhere within their jurisdiction without any limitations beyond the somewhat vague-sounding "populated areas, heavily trafficked roads" or the open air above a large assembly of people. That can leave a great deal of sky to buzz around with less of the oversight I think is desperately needed in programs like this.
Now, just to be clear, these drones do not carry arms. They are used for imaging. Then again, as the creep continues, the rules keep shifting towards greater use and application, so it wouldn't be fair to slam anyone concerned that someday we may indeed see armed UAVs over our skies. Equally worrying is this:
MCSO has been using drones operationally for two years, but the department has no written drone policy outlining the uses for which its officers may deploy UAVs. Ms. Barnes writes that MCSO is "currently in the process of drafting a written policy for the use of our unmanned aircraft."Well, that's just peaches. Military-style technology deployed domestically without any official policy for its use. I feel so warm and fuzzy inside.