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Police are now using drones to apprehend suspects and administer non-lethal force: A police chief weighs in

Unmanned aerial vehicles are beginning to occupy our airspace, operated by companies, filmmakers, and hobbyists. A new law in North Dakota places guidelines on use for law enforcement.

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Los Angeles Sheriff Department deputy Troy Sella (left) and SkySeer inventor Sam de la Torre
Image: CNET

Drones have been used in the military, for commercial purposes, and for personal use, yet rules surrounded registration and laws remain vague. American law enforcement is now integrating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the police force. In North Dakota, a recent bill allows for non-lethal drone use on police drones (for example, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray).

Reactions have been mixed, and concerns are surfacing. TechRepublic spoke to Michael D. Reitan, Chief of Police for the West Fargo Police Department, about how he sees the use of drones impacting law enforcement.

North Dakota is the first state to legally allow drone use in the police. How did this come about?

To be "allowed" to do it is incorrect. The statue, actually, is restrictive. Prior to this, there were no restrictions on how law enforcement could use unmanned aerial systems in North Dakota other than the rules set by FAA. What representative Becker in Bismark wanted to do was highly restrict how law enforcement used drones in the public. It essentially eliminated the possibility of law enforcement using a drone except when we had a warrant to use them. That's certainly more restrictive than any form of technology that's available to law enforcement including helicopters, pole-mounted cameras, the officers' personal observations, even. So the intent of the law, introduced by Representative Becker, was to restrict law enforcement practices.

What the North Dakota Police Officers' Association, aerial law enforcement officers, and even some House and Senate representatives did was ask for amendments that were more reasonable than what was an accepted use of unmanned aerial systems. They allowed us to use them much as we use any other form of surveillance now. It's within the guidelines of the FAA and other court cases that restrict how law enforcement conduct surveillance or the 'plain view' conditions. If something is deemed in plain view, we're in a legal position to observe whatever is taking place. Through the course of these negotiations, one of the things that Representative Becker had indicated was that drones were not to be armed in any fashion.

What are the reactions among law enforcement about drones being armed?

Some in the law enforcement community, but not all, think there may be a time where it may be appropriate to have non-lethal weapons on a drone—such things as tear gas, pepper spray, etc., where a drone will be able to fly into a location where somebody is firing from a concealed position. Or a barricaded person in the drone would be able to drop a canister of pepper spray or tear gas to get a person to come out of hiding. At no time was law enforcement looking to have a firearm mounted on a drone or a missile or anything like that. The primary purpose of unmanned aerial system used in law enforcement is for search and rescue.

What are the primary uses of drones in law enforcement?

They can locate wanted subjects, or reconstruct crime scenes or motor vehicle crash scenes. They can respond to natural or manmade disasters where we need a quick aerial analysis of what's going on. We have a couple situations up here, up in Nelson County, where individuals who've made some threats against law enforcement have barricaded themselves into their farm. The Nelson County sheriffs, at times, requested the board of patrol to do a flyover of the farm with an unmanned aerial vehicle to see what was going on. The sheriff could've done that with a helicopter or an airplane and there wouldn't have been too much said about it. But being a unmanned aerial system, there was a lot of squawk over it.

How are North Dakota's rules different from other states?

Each state has an opportunity to assess rules if they want to. If you checked your home state, there's nothing in place other than what's set by FAA or through case law, through the court. There's some state law on surveillance, but it's going to be encompassing all forms of observation, not just drones.

Can you talk about some specific cases using drones?

In the city of Grand Forks, there was a fatality accident recently. They asked the sheriff to fly their drone over the crash scene so they could capture the video image of the scene as soon after the crash as possible for later reconstruction.

One situation here in North Dakota, a few years back, would be a perfect example of a drone being invaluable. A prisoner transport bus stopped at rest stop in a rural area west of Fargo. One of the prisoners jumped from the van and ran into a cornfield nearby. If we'd been able to quickly dispatch a law enforcement agency with the drone, we could have put drone over the cornfield and caught the person in a relatively short period of time because of the ability to look down into the cornfield. It's much clearer to look down than to look across. What ended up happening was that this person was on the run from field to field for a couple of days. Finally, they had it pretty well figured out where this person was hiding in the cornfield. The solution the sheriff came up with was that they began harvesting the corn. The farmer contacted a bunch of neighbors, and the harvesting started at a couple different parts of the field. At each combine, they placed an armed sheriff's deputy and they harvested the corn until the subject finally surrendered. So certainly a significant use of resources and expense that easily could have been resolved in a matter of hour or two of searching with a UAV.

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Police Chief Michael Reitan
Image: Michael Reitan

What needs to happen in terms of officers trained in drones?

The FAA has specific requirements about what the drone operators must possess in terms of training. They're coming out with new rules. The layperson essentially had little to no rules in terms of pilot training—the only restrictions were that they weren't able to fly in a certain airspace. They're now in the process of changing that, requiring registration and training. From the law enforcement standpoint, we want to err on the side of caution and make sure we're doing everything with the highest degree of safety possible. What we would do is make sure that our people are adequately trained and certified and those are the only ones to operate the equipment, and the equipment is certified itself, in terms of safety.

Do you see difference between using pepper spray from a drone versus from the hands of a police officer?

When we have a barricaded subject or subject in hiding, what we currently do is put a canister [of pepper spray] in a launcher and actually fire it, project it, into that area. We do it blindly, not knowing who or what is in that area. With a drone, we could actually look down and see who and what was there, and accurately deliver it. The use of a drone would enhance our ability to put resources in the right spot at the right time.

With a drone, we could actually look down and see who and what was there. It would enhance our ability to put resources in the right spot at the right time. Michael Reitan

What is the general public reaction to police use of drones in North Dakota?

There have been a vocal few who think that it's totally inappropriate. I think that, in part, is because they equate the police use of drones with the military use of drones. Obviously, we're not looking to use them as an offensive weapon. We're looking to use them as an observation platform. Representative Becker was also concerned about individuals' privacy rights. Through court cases and even state law, law enforcement is restricted from where we can look. The public is also restricted, not by court cases, but by state law. It's a new technology, and some people just fear the new technology without a clear understanding of what the law enforcement can be.

What about concerns over warrants? Is it different for a drone versus a helicopter?

When the courts look at it, they'd look at drones being the same as a helicopter. It's a platform with vertical takeoff and landing and can hover over a site. There are others that operate like an airplane. but the drone is really just another form of aircraft, and really should be viewed as just that. In the near future, we'll be flying on airplanes without pilots.

Do you have personal concerns about use of drones?

I'm not looking for problems with law enforcement. We do have the case law. If we violate someone's civil rights, we face jail time, significant financial penalties. There are serious consequences for misusing the technology. Evidence we gather illegally cannot be used in court. So we have a lot to lose by misusing the system. The public, on the other hand, is different. We've seen stories in the paper where there's confrontation between neighbors or people at the beach, where a civilian is flying a drone and the other person doesn't feel they should be there. We're also concerned about people using drones to do those things that are illegal by state law, as far as peering into somebody's home or private place. Those are all significant issues that we need to handle, as far as looking at our existing laws, practical or applicable. If the laws are good, which I believe most of them are, because illegal surveillance is already covered by our laws, how are we as law enforcement going to be able to investigate and identify individuals who are illegally using drones to do surveillance? We may be able to capture a drone because it falls into somebody's yard while peering into a window, but how do we trace it back to the individual who was flying the drone?

TechRepublic will continue to cover the use of drones from practical and legal perspectives. Follow our continuing coverage on the FAA's new guidelines for individual drone registration and regulations.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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