Howard County police launched a one-year drone field test with a demonstration flight of two drones Thursday morning at Kiwanis-Wallas Park in Ellicott City.
In November, police announced the impending purchase of the drones, months after disbanding its aviation program, which ended in April 2019 due to the county’s anticipated deficit.
The department’s purchase of three drones cost $33,800, according to police. The Howard County Police Foundation provided a $20,000 contribution towards the drones.
“As technology evolves, our agency will continue to evolve with it to ensure we are providing the most effective ways to protect our communities,” Howard Police Chief Lisa Meyers said in a statement Thursday.
“The drones can help us in search-and-rescue operations and provide real-time information in potentially dangerous crisis situations,” she added.
The drone program is a result of a county work group that recommended purchasing the three drones after conducting research on the technology. The work group examined drone use in law enforcement, such as transparency, training, usefulness and privacy issues.
The drones will be used in situations when “life and safety are at risk” or when there is “specific and articulable grounds” that the drones will collect evidence relating to criminal activity, police said.
Ten police officers were trained and became certified remote pilots in the past two months. The officers will stay in their current assignment and will respond to incidents where a drone is necessary.
The training cost $14,900, which covered pilot certifications in day and night operations and test preparations, police said.
In Maryland, the Annapolis Office of Emergency Management, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and EMS Department, the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and EMS, the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department, and St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office all use drone technology, according to a 2018 report by Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.
Following guidelines from the American Civil Liberties Union, Howard police will “ensure the community can benefit from drone technology without privacy concerns,” a news release states.
Drone images will not be kept unless there is “reasonable suspicion” the photographs showcase evidence of criminal activity or are relevant to any pending criminal trial or ongoing investigation, the release states. Police will delete any other images.
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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement he is “thrilled to see the drone program get off the ground, allowing the [police department] to be more effective and efficient, while continuing to protect all our residents’ safety and civil liberties.”