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Cleveland Considers Police Drone Program, Offers No Details On Policies

Trainees and an instructor flying a drone at Cuyahoga County Community College's police officer training facility in Parma. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
photo of drone

At a drone training at Cuyahoga Community College’s police training campus, law enforcement trainees practice flying the tiny aircraft in a field behind the building, next to controlled burn sites used by the firefighter academy and a police driving course.

Some trainees learn to fly drones outfitted with a small basket that can make a delivery to someone in need of rescue or a first responder waiting below.

Others maneuver around a series of obstacles with smaller drones that can take photos or send video back to the operator.

Cleveland police are currently considering their own drone program, with plans to get started sometime later this year.

“Drone programs are in several other major cities,” Cleveland Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard said during a February city council budget hearing. “We are looking at those cities – there’s Los Angeles, I believe Memphis, Seattle have drone programs – so we don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Cleveland officials have said little else about how they plan to use drones. And there’s little guidance in Ohio law on how they can be used or how footage captured with them should be handled.

While its technology used by law enforcement across the country, several privacy and policy questions still to be answered. A March 2020 report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College found almost 1,600 local and state law enforcement departments and first responders using drones.

Clayton Harris, director of Tri-C’s public safety training center, chaired then-Attorney General Mike DeWine’s 2016 advisory group on drones and law enforcement that drafted model policies for drone use.

Harris said the training Tri-C offers is pretty clear: use drones for specific purposes, don’t just fly around peeking into people’s yards or windows or tracking movements.

“There’s no reason to do haphazard searching around in areas where you’re not supposed to. That’s not part of the assignment,” Harris said.

The rules that do govern drone use right now come from the Federal Aviation Administration, which recently loosened rules to allow flights at night and over populated areas. And the FAA requires anyone flying drones for commercial purposes to get what’s known as a Part 107 license.

Harris and DeWine’s law enforcement advisory group recommended all law enforcement drone operators get the license.

“Many of the things that we had suggested and what the proper protocols should be are still in effect today,” Harris said.

The 2016 advisory group recommended using drones for things like search and rescue, positioning officers in hostage situations, crowd control and crime scene investigations. Recommendations also included treating footage and data from drone flights as a public record.

In Erie County, the sheriff’s office uses its three drones primarily for search and rescue and crash scene investigations. The department’s written policy leaves out many of the elements in the state’s model version, including considering drone footage a matter of public record or recordkeeping on each flight.

Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said his office follows Fourth Amendment rules, like with all other police work, when it comes to drones.

“We can fly the drone for general surveillance if we are looking for a certain person or vehicle. We cannot target someone’s property without a search warrant,” Sigsworth said.

Say, for instance, a drone is searching for a missing person and happens to capture something in a person’s backyard indicating a crime is being committed. Sigsworth said there would have to be a search warrant before going back.

“You know, with a drone, potentially we could fly up and look in someone’s window if we wanted to,” Sigsworth said. “We can’t just walk up to someone’s house and look in the window to see if you’re doing something wrong without a warrant. And it would be the same thing in that situation.”

But that interpretation is up for debate. An officer walking down the sidewalk who glances into your window and sees what appears to be a crime doesn’t need a warrant. The same goes if a cop pulls you over for a traffic violation and smells marijuana in your vehicle.

According to Cleveland State University law professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that, because of the power of technology, police need search warrants for things like collecting location information using a GPS tracker or cell phone records.

“There are additional privacy risks by the fact you’re using a digital surveillance to do that and that may violate the Fourth Amendment even though a police officer doing the same thing might not,” Witmer-Rich said.

Public concerns about drones and their surveillance capabilities should lead police departments to gather public input before developing new policies on their use, he added.

“And if the public feels like we just kind of see drones out above us from time to time and we don’t why they’re being used or what they’re being used for, I think it creates a real danger and can lead to a real backlash,” Witmer-Rich said.

In some cities, like Los Angeles, public discussions led to restrictions on what situations drones can be used in. In Seattle, public backlash put a halt to the police department’s plans for a drone program.

Cleveland officials have not announced plans for gathering public input on drone policies.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.