Law enforcement agencies in the Baltimore area and across the country are researching drones, intrigued by their potential for high-risk tactical raids and gathering intelligence.
But uncertainty over federal regulations, concern about privacy issues and other factors have slowed many agencies from acquiring the unmanned aircraft.
"There are still many unanswered questions into the future of drone use and how the [Federal Aviation Administration] will regulate those efforts," said Harford County sheriff's office spokeswoman Cristie Kahler. The agency recently launched its first aviation unit but has not taken steps toward drone technology. "Once the FAA sets their guidelines, internally, we would need to evaluate how drones would fit into our operational plans."
Police officials in Baltimore County have discussed unmanned aircraft demonstrations with a Maryland company, though they now say they have no immediate plans to invest in a drone. Meanwhile, Howard County police officials have watched demonstrations at an industry conference and officials in Anne Arundel are taking a wait-and-see approach. Baltimore police did not respond to questions about their plans.
Proponents say the small, lightweight aircraft — already embraced by photography enthusiasts, real estate agents and hobbyists — could have many benefits for police. Drone cameras can aid in search-and-rescue missions, quickly record crash scene images and provide officers with critical information as volatile situations such as mass shootings and barricades unfold.
Baltimore County police Capt. Don Roby wrote to department officials that the technology would be useful for the tactical unit during barricade situations and in serving high-risk warrants. Drones "may be a more practical and affordable option for this agency. (Especially for the crime scene and crash scene missions)," he wrote in a memo obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request.
Roby, commander of the county's Criminal Investigation Division, has been working on a national committee for small unmanned aircraft systems and is scheduled to speak how agencies can integrate the technology at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in October.
But many agencies are waiting for the FAA to issue regulations on the use of drones. Interest in the aircraft could also be tempered as pressure mounts for police departments across the country to scale back on using equipment that echoes the military — an issue highlighted after the recent clashes between protesters and tactical police units in Ferguson, Mo.
Many departments are also grappling with internal guidelines to address privacy concerns, including the use and storage of images.
"It's clear that this is coming. It's clearly on law enforcement radar screens," said senior staff attorney David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland. "The time to reassure the public is now so we don't wake up and find hundreds of drones keeping us under constant surveillance."
Baltimore County Chief James W. Johnson "is concerned about the potential for this tool to invade an individual's privacy — whether it is used in the public or private sector," spokeswoman Elise Armacost said in an email. She added that the agency does not have plans for the "foreseeable future" to invest in the technology.
According to Roby, proponents suggest using small drones for a wide range of uses, from "pre-raid surveillance/intelligence gathering," to fires, Hazmat incidents and support for other government needs such as zoning. An unmanned aircraft would not replace the county's existing aviation unit, but would "compliment it with a more efficient and tactical mission solution," he said in the email to department officials.
Roby declined through the spokeswoman to be interviewed.
Additional emails among Baltimore County police officials have discussed times for a demonstration by UAV Solutions, a Jessup-based company that builds unmanned aerial systems. The demonstrations were to be held in Denton because FAA regulations would no longer permit demonstrations at the company's BWI facility, a county lieutenant wrote.
But Armacost said county officials have not yet attended a demonstration or scheduled one.
A UAV Solutions spokeswoman deferred comment to Baltimore County.
The company, which touts "A Solution For Every Mission" on its website, offers several drone models. The lightweight Phoenix 15, which weighs just 1.6 pounds, has a range of half a mile and fly time of up to 15 minutes, is described as "ideal for military, first responders and civil applications." The company's Talon 240, which resembles a small, white airplane, weighs 112 pounds and has a fly time of up to 8 hours.
Law enforcement agencies can apply for certifications to operate an unmanned aircraft. Most of the more than 1,400 permits issued by the FAA since 2007 have been to police departments and civilian federal agencies. The FAA, which is responsible for regulating the nation's airspace, is expected to release rules on commercial operation of drones in 2015.
Sgt. Marc Black with Maryland State Police said the technology is "not something we would go into this time," citing concerns with FAA regulations.
A Howard County police spokeswoman said department officials have viewed some drone demonstrations at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference and expo, but continue to rely on the aviation unit. Anne Arundel County spokesman T.J. Smith said, "We will continue to monitor new technology, like drones, as it evolves to determine if it's useful for law enforcement purposes."
Even before a police drone flies over Maryland, some lawmakers have called for imposing limits. This year, the General Assembly considered legislation requiring a search warrant to use drones, but the bill did not make it out of committee. Last year, Carroll County commissioners discussed legislation restricting drone use in the county by government agencies, but the measure did not pass.
In testimony for the General Assembly, the ACLU noted that drones are cheap, making it easier for police departments to purchase them instead of larger, more expensive helicopters. "Because of these fundamental differences, they are particularly well-suited to secret surveillance, so they need specific legal controls," the testimony said.
"Some larger departments already have aviation units, but helicopters are hugely expensive to maintain and fly, so there are inherent practical limitations — all of which completely disappears when we talk about drone surveillance," Rocah said. The discussion is not over whether there a legitimate uses for drones, he said, but whether there are enough restraints in play to prohibit mass surveillance.
A handful of other states have adopted laws regulating drones.
Daniel Schwarzbach, executive director of the Frederick-based Airborne Law Enforcement Association, agreed that drone technology is the future for law enforcement, given the numerous applications, the push from manufacturers looking to expand markets and decreasing costs. He said some models are compact and can be launched at a scene much more quickly than requesting a helicopter.
He agreed that lower costs could make the technology accessible to more departments. He said police departments now would pay between $40,000 to 50,000 for a drone, but that technology is not advanced enough to provide a clear, stabilized photo, and helicopters already provide that capability.
"What really needs to be discussed is data. There is a lot of data being collected by law enforcement," he said noting that most major cities already have a web of surveillance cameras and other tools such as mounted license plate readers to collect information. The discussion, he said, should be, "what do we do with it. How long do we retain it?"
In Mesa, Colo., where the county sheriff's office was one of the first in the nation to adopt a drone in 2008, officials said they often don't record images when using the Draganflyer X4-ES helicopter, which weighs about five pounds, or the nine-pound Falcon UAS.
Ben Miller, the UAS program director for the sheriff's office, said they use one of the drones on average, once every other week.
"We have a non-retention policy," he said of images gathered by the drones. "Unless it's evidence, we don't retain it. We delete it immediately."
Miller said the devices aren't really useful for surveillance, noting that the small electronic helicopter is bright yellow and has a fly time of about 30 minutes. He said the agency isn't deploying the aircraft without a specific, designated purpose. "We're not flying over to look for activity to give people a $50 ticket."
The sheriff's office used drones to search for victims in devastating mudslides earlier this year, and more often has used them for the less glamorous side of investigations, such as taking traffic accident photos. That saves the department time and money, Miller said.
When departments do adopt drone programs, transparency and communication with the public are key, Miller said, noting that his department received many calls initially from concerned residents. He said the Mesa County department would invite them to come, take a look and ask questions. The calls have dropped off.
"We want to educate the public about what we are doing," Miller said.
Latest Sun Investigates