The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office appears to be the first agency in the state to use an unmanned aerial drone for law enforcement purposes.
But the flight of the unmanned vehicle over the scene of a shooting earlier this month — and the lack of clear policies and procedures for how it will be used and what will happen to the footage it records — has raised concerns from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The relatively small and cheap unmanned aerial vehicles, which are capable of shooting and transmitting video and pictures, raise a number of concerns regarding police surveillance and privacy rights, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman said.
“We don’t know what they’re doing with these drone images, and the public has a right to know if these things are flying around overhead,” Esman said.
The Sheriff’s Office’s drone had its first and only flight so far when it was deployed above the site of a July 8 shooting in Marrero that killed 16-year-old Stefan Johnson.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Col. John Fortunato would not discuss details about the drone, saying the agency is still determining how it will be used.
“We’re not ready to disclose what our intentions are at this point,” he said.
A public records request by Esman seeking information about policies on the use of the drone was met with a similar response.
“We are in the process of reviewing the issues involved in using unmanned aircraft systems and have not yet developed any policies,” Sheriff’s Office legal adviser Tim Valenti wrote.
The lack of specific policies is a concern, particularly because drones are so cheap to operate that they could be used far more extensively than other types of surveillance or manned helicopters, Esman said. That raises the possibility they could be flown frequently and the video they capture could be archived indefinitely, she said.
“The public has to be protected against the establishment of a massive public database,” Esman said.
Among the policies she said are necessary to protect the privacy of residents are standards on how long video from the drones will be kept and rules saying they may be used only for specific purposes.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office appears to be the first law enforcement agency in the state to actually deploy a drone, though other agencies have toyed with the idea or even purchased drones.
The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office has a small drone, but so far there are no plans to use it for law enforcement purposes, Capt. George Bonnett said. The device, which cost the agency about $1,200, has so far been used only to aid in filming “Behind the Badge,” a show by and about the Sheriff’s Office that airs on government access channels. Officials also have discussed using drones to do inspections on the radio towers used by the Sheriff’s Office, a process that typically requires hiring an outside worker to climb several hundred feet, Bonnett said.
While there could be situations in which a drone would be useful in a law enforcement capacity, such as during a SWAT team deployment or in a search for someone lost in the woods, Bonnett said the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office has not yet looked into those applications and a lot would depend on the capabilities of the craft and its operator.
State Police considered buying a drone to use during accidents involving hazardous materials or to monitor traffic, Capt. Doug Cain said. However, the agency ended up deciding not to purchase one.
There are no specific state laws dealing with the use of drones by law enforcement agencies.
Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, made several attempts at this year’s legislative session to restrict the private use of drones, including a bill that would have allowed residents to open fire at drones over their property. Those measures were largely aimed at preventing drones from being used to spy on private property and included provisions that would have allowed law enforcement to use the technology.
Claitor’s main attempt at new regulations failed to make it through the legislative process.
The Federal Aviation Administration does regulate the use of law enforcement drones. However, its policies deal largely with safety concerns and include requirements that the drone’s operator be properly trained, that flights occur only during the day and that the drone not be flown over crowded areas.
It is not clear whether the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has a certificate of authorization from the FAA to use its drone.
For now, Esman said, the Sheriff’s Office needs to come up with its own policies on the use of its drone.
“If they don’t have any, they ought not to be using something that has the potential to spy on people,” Esman said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.