Unmanned aircraft systems can be used in a variety of contexts. Hobbyists fly them for private use, as they might a model aircraft. E-commerce giant Amazon is exploring the use of drones for rapid product delivery. Drones are also used for humanitarian purposes, surveying damage caused by natural disasters.

The versatility of drones entices state and local law enforcement agencies, as well. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for example, deployed UAS to help monitor areas that are difficult to traverse along the Mexican and Canadian borders. When drones detect movement in these places, the CBP is able to send human agents equipped to deliver medical assistance.

For local law enforcement, however, drone use is often misunderstood. As quickly as police departments find ways to leverage the benefits of unmanned vehicles, public criticism of such operations can shut them down. Along with an investment in technology and crafting good policy, public perception is a critical factor that law enforcement needs to address.

Technology may evolve faster than policy
In the ongoing discourse about use of drones, one of the regulatory bodies that holds the most sway is the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA, though, has moved slowly to put regulations in place.

UAV-drone-disaster reliefUAVs have helped governments assess damage in the wake of natural disasters.

The FAA recently drafted rules that could benefit law enforcement organizations opting to develop UAS procedures. Broadly, the regulations would allow use of small drones for work purposes, which could include police officers alongside real estate agents, farmers and photographers.

Anyone operating a drone would be asked to pay a license fee, pass a proficiency test, and register their UAS with the FAA. Individual operators could only fly small drones—no more than 55 pounds—during the daytime. The unmanned vehicles would have to remain within sight of the operator and fly no higher than 500 feet at speeds under 100 miles per hour.

The process has been slow because the issue is complex. Already overdue, the federal ruling is not expected until 2017 in large part because the regulations will be subject to public feedback. This degree of deliberation is necessary to ensure the government effectively addresses any community concern over privacy, security and accountability.

However, some question whether the proposed regulations will be effective in the face of an ever-evolving drone industry. In a panel discussion at the Unmanned Systems 2015 conference, Pepperdine University law professor Gregory McNeal suggested that, by the time the vetted rules are implemented, the technology will have advanced beyond them.

Drone laws learn from past flaws
To fill the regulatory void, states are taking the initiative to pass their own rules governing drone use. Since 2012, 15 states have enacted laws restricting drones in some way. That is up from just 4 states in 2014, demonstrating both the interest and need for official policy.

In crafting their regulations, North Carolina learned from the flaws in similar legislation by other states. Included as part of the state’s 2014 budget, UAS operators are prohibited from surveying private homes and property without prior consent, but the law does not explicitly define surveillance. This gives courts the freedom of interpretation to adapt to changing use cases. The North Carolina law does allow law enforcement organizations to capture silent video surveillance, a tactic useful for drug trafficking investigations.

The debate does not end with legislation, however. Successful implementation of a surveillance program requires buy-in from the local stakeholders impacted by these policies.

“We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were trying to sneak these things into action.”

In 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it received two drones from the Seattle Police Department. The unmanned vehicles became expendable when public backlash in Seattle dismantled the program.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the LAPD indicated the small UAVs were intended for use in “narrow and prescribed” circumstances (e.g., a hostage situation), and the agency would notify the public before deploying them. The City placed the vehicles in the custody of the Office of the Inspector General until policy can be drafted inclusive of community input.

“We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were trying to sneak these things into action,” said Commander Andrew Smith, LAPD spokesman.

In addressing public perceptions, the department introduced a rhetorical strategy: Avoid the stigma associated with drones by referring to the vehicles as “aircraft.” While opponents are not likely swayed by a change in terminology, the strategy does permit new conversations to emerge.

Public buy-in will help ensure the new program lasts. Transparency and an open dialogue between local officials and community members should be on agencies’ agendas. Helping to transform public perception of drone use in law enforcement works in tandem with policy that keeps community concerns in full purview. While federal agencies slowly implement regulations that will shape the direction of UAV programs, state and local bodies will need to be proactive to develop strategies that align with the needs of the communities they serve.

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