06Nov 2018

Law enforcement: Transparency and trust ensures a successful UAS program

Law Enforcement_ Ensuring a successful UAS program (1)

Use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by law enforcement and public safety departments is rising. While the potential benefits of UAS use by law enforcement are numerous, obstacles and challenges also exist with the implementation of this new technology. Law enforcement agencies interested in leveraging the benefits should also be prepared to address all concerns and potential liabilities.

In this report, we discuss the benefits and challenges for public agencies using unmanned aircraft as well as the lessons learned from police departments when implementing a UAS program. Law enforcement agencies can overcome obstacles to have a successful UAS program by fostering community support, practicing transparency, and training.

More agencies using UAS

According to The Center for the Study of Drones at Bard College, there are at least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency agencies using drones. The study estimates that the number of public safety agencies with drones has increased by 82 percent in the last year alone. This is really of no surprise considering the numerous benefits that the flying devices offer departments.

Data: The Center for the Study of Drones at Bard College

Data: The Center for the Study of Drones at Bard College (As of May 2018)


UAS technology helps make our communities more secure by providing a host of benefits to law enforcement and public safety departments. Drones make public safety operations more efficient and safer by improving situational awareness and maneuverability in dangerous areas and conditions. Unmanned aircraft can accomplish missions faster and cheaper than traditional aviation. Drones are fundamentally changing how agencies respond to a wide range of incidents and help keep the public safe.

Unmanned aircraft systems offer police departments many benefits:

  • Drones save time
    • Cover more ground
    • Get to scenes faster
  • Drones save money
    • Cheaper to acquire, store, operate, and deploy than helicopters
  • Drones save lives
    • Keep officers out of danger
    • Provide vital information to protect lives
  • Extend situational awareness
    • Aerial vantage point

Drones are a useful public safety tool for a variety of missions:

  • Search and rescue operations
  • Traffic accident scene investigations
  • Tracking and locating suspects
  • Assess dangerous situations such as:
    • active shooter
    • hostage
    • suspicious package/bomb
    • riots
  • Natural disaster response and recovery efforts


Without careful planning, your drone program may be grounded by concerned citizens. Even with all the benefits drones provide, there are drawbacks - mainly privacy concerns. Community support is key to ensuring your police department has a successful UAS program. Think about the citizens’ response while developing and implementing your program.

Public perception of drones

According to the Cato Institute 2016 Criminal Justice Survey, “six in 10 Americans (59%) support police using drones, but a majority (54%) also worry drones could invade people’s privacy.” The word ‘drone’ sometimes gets a bad wrap, many think of military drone strikes or other nefarious uses. As people become more familiar with 'drones,' the term will lose its negative connotation. Also, referring to the devices as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or unmanned aerial system sounds less intimidating. Even with using the less threatening term UAS, some individuals perceive the technology as invasive to privacy rights and as a tool that can easily be misused.

Privacy concerns

Citizens and privacy advocacy organizations like the ACLU worry that law enforcement will use UAS for mass surveillance. Advocacy groups champion for citizens rights, speaking out against being able to use drones in situations that may infringe upon their civil liberties such as over public crowds, as they can be used to target individuals or groups of people. The primary concern of privacy community advocacy groups is the possible use of UAS for routine mass surveillance, or “persistent surveillance.”

As with other surveillance technologies such as CCTV cameras and traffic cameras, the way they are used determines if they are infringing on Fourth Amendment rights. Security cameras that are used to monitor foot or vehicle traffic in public places do not infringe on privacy rights; there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in open public places.

Liability concerns

The use of UAS poses liability risks for law enforcement and public safety departments.

Potential liability risks for law enforcement include:

  • injury to persons or property
  • violation of privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment
  • violation of the First Amendment

Privacy Rights and the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. As a result, people must have a reasonable expectation of privacy (RXP) in their homes and in public spaces constructed to provide privacy.

Technology is changing faster than the law, and the United States Supreme Court has yet to explicitly consider the constitutionality of UAS use by domestic law enforcement. However, many Fourth Amendment court decisions can apply to the use of UAS and attached surveillance devices.

Law enforcement can look to prior Fourth Amendment court rulings to gauge how emerging technologies may be used appropriately:

The court decided that officers violated the Fourth Amendment by attaching a listening device to a public telephone booth. The key takeaway from this case is the Reasonable Expectation of Privacy (RPX) Test, which determines whether an action by the government has violated an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy.

The court ruled that attaching tracking beeper did not constitute as a search or seizure.

The court ruled that the installation of a tracking device without a warrant did not constitute as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the officers violated the Fourth Amendment and conducted a search by turning the device on without a warrant.

The court ruled the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment by taking pictures of a private residence at 1000 feet.

The court ruled that police do not need a warrant to visually examine the exterior of an automobile because the automobile’s exterior visible in the public.

The court ruled that warrantless video surveillance of private property from a pole camera constitutes a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The court ruled that photographs of a private residence taken at 400 feet did not constitute a search and therefore, did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The court ruled that using a thermal imaging device on a private residence without a warrant violates a person’s right to privacy.

The court ruled that attaching a GPS device to a car without a warrant constitutes an unlawful search and also trespass into a constitutionally protected area.

The court ruled that the use of sUAS to intercept and collect WiFi data without a warrant is considered wiretapping.

Internal opposition

Departments may face opposition from within the department or from city council decision makers. Many departments have that one guy, who opposes new technology or new methods of doing something. This is quite common in every office. Usually, once that person sees the results and benefits of using UAS, they too will be on board.

Public Pushback

Several police departments have faced the above challenges and were unsuccessful in overcoming citizens concerns. Lessons can be learned from departments attempting to implement a UAS program without considering community concerns. Below are a few examples of what happens when a department purchases a drone before gaining community support.

Seattle, WA

In October 2012, the Seattle Police Department was one of the first police departments to receive federal approval to use UAS. After scrutiny from the ACLU and citizens, Seattle’s UAS program was terminated in February 2013. Seattle PD donated their drones to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles, CA

In 2014, the LAPD acquired drones donated by Seattle PD. The donated drones sat unused for three years due to privacy concerns until last year when LAPD announced a new drone program. In late 2017, a civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department approved a one-year drone program that is limited in scope.

Denver, CO

Denver PD encountered similar privacy concerns over drone use. In August 2018, Denver PD announced their department was scraping their UAS program and shelving their drones. No future UAS plans have been announced.

Other departments have put their UAS plans on hold due to apprehensive citizens. However, they are going about the approval process the appropriate way by encouraging, collecting, and considering community feedback.

Wichita, KS

Wichita Police Department announced it was purchasing a drone in July 2018. Wichita police presented a UAS program to the Citizen Review Board, which answered with they needed more information and was concerned with privacy and police misuse.

Fairfax County, VA

In August 2018, Fairfax County in Virginia announced they were going to delay their UAS program over privacy concerns to get public input.

Overcoming challenges to your UAS program

Police departments can learn from pushback other departments have been experiencing across the country with deploying drone programs. Discover how to have a successful UAS initiative to ensure your program won’t end with your drones becoming expensive dust collectors.

Community engagement & support

One crucial factor in establishing a successful UAS program is to have informed citizens to support your department. Implementing a UAS program before gaining public support can lead to distrust and disapproval. When planning your UAS initiative, it is best to obtain community support in the earliest stages.

Since having community support cannot be stressed enough, here are some helpful ways to get started:

  • Get input and feedback from the community:
    • Town hall meeting
    • Q&A session with citizens
    • Public demonstration
    • Online through your website or social media
  • Introduce your drones to the community - fly them and let citizens see the technology in action
  • Invite local press to public events, training session, or demonstrations

By engaging with citizens, especially through media and social media, your department will give the public and media a better understanding of UAS technology and how your department will use it. Involving local media helps your team control the conversation and curb negative perceptions. If a citizen sees a drone flying around and alerts the media before you do, there may be a different slant to the story. Similar to how law enforcement uses body cameras and makes the public aware of the benefits outweighing the cons, the same can be done with drones, let the citizens know exactly how your team will and won’t be using drone technology.


Be transparent about your UAS program and operation. Transparency should be part of your best practices from the beginning, as it will help thwart challenges to your UAS program.

Helpful tips:

  • Your policy should be online and easy to find on your department’s website.
  • Make your policy and procedures accessible to the public as well.
  • Your UAS policy should clearly outline how and when UAS will be used.
  • State how you will not be using the UAS program.
  • Disclose how data from your UAS missions will be collected, used, saved and destroyed.

Much like with body-worn cameras (BWC) policy, police should be transparent about when, where, and why they fly drones. Transparency should go beyond having a written policy by making flight data available to the public as well.

A great way to provide transparency to the public is by making the department drone’s flight paths available online with real-time, detailed information that will inform the citizens of where their tax dollars are being spent and to ease their fear of having their privacy being infringed on. Below is an example of how 911 Security demonstrated using drone detection software to display exact flight paths and flight durations for the Chula Vista Police Department. If you are interested in having a web-based display of your department’s drone flight paths and other drone information made public to your citizens, ask us how we can customize a solution to fit your program’s needs. Our solutions are scalable and agile to meet the ever-changing drone technology and the environments they are deployed.

PD Drone Activity Video 

PD Drone Flight Activity Video


Proper UAS training decreases the department’s risk of liability while promoting accountability. Group training can help everyone become more comfortable with the new technology. Training should include actual flight operations and simulated missions.

In addition to flight training, UAS teams would benefit by learning about the legal and policy aspects of UAS use as well. Legal and policy aspects include instruction on the following topics:

  • Policy training
  • Aerial surveillance
  • Privacy awareness
  • Constitutional issues
  • Drone laws and Regulations

It is essential to comply with local, state, and federal laws that may affect your program.

PD UAS Programs aiming for success

Focusing on community outreach and support is key to launching a successful UAS initiative. The following police departments have put community first when planning their UAS programs. At each stage of implementing your UAS programs, departments should actively engage with their citizens.

Chula Vista, CA - transparency, community relations, ACLU

Chula Vista Police Department has positioned themselves to have a very successful UAS program by aligning with Cape, a drone telepresence and data management company, and becoming a central part of the FAA UAS Integration Pilot Program. CVPD has been carefully building their UAS program since 2015. During which they have engaged with their community, worked with the ACLU and other community advisory boards, and deployed best practices in each stage of their UAS planning process.

Arlington, TX - community relations, FAA relationship

Arlington Police Department has been authorized to fly unmanned aircraft since 2013. Being one of the earliest adopters of UAS technology, they have learned a lot about having a UAS program and eagerly pass knowledge to other departments.

Pensacola, FL - public demonstrations, community relations

Pensacola Police Department has partnered with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition to make their program a success. In August 2018, The department held a press conference informing the community about how the department will use drones. While they are still in the planning phase, the department is trying to be open with their citizens about their future UAS use.

Dallas, TX - public feedback and input, media relations

The city of Dallas just announced that the Dallas Police Department is seeking public feedback about their UAS program, which they plan hope will be implemented by early 2019.


UAS programs within public safety and law enforcement are growing at an exponential rate and providing countless benefits to both departments and citizens. However, they have raised concerns within communities. Police departments can extinguish citizen’s concerns and fears over active drone programs and programs in the early stages of deployment through trust and transparency. Trust is vital to winning the hearts and approval of their communities. By practicing transparency when planning and implementing new technologies, police departments benefit from higher rates of community support, public trust, and program success. The decision of implementing drone technology into your department is a complex decision that should be made in coordination with your community. If your team would like guidance in creating your own web-based public facing drone visibility program, contact us for a customized solution to fit your department’s specific needs.


Public Safety Drones: An Update. (May 2018). Retrieved from https://dronecenter.bard.edu/files/2018/05/CSD-Public-Safety-Drones-Update-1.pdf

National Police Foundation: UAS Report. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.policefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/UAS-Report.pdf

National Police Foundation: Constitutional Guidance on UAS. Retrieved from http://www.policefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/sUAS-Fact-Sheets_v2_constitutional-guidance_FINAL.pdf

National Institute of Justice: Considerations and Recommendations for Implementing an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program. (December 2016). Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250283.pdf

Ekins, Emily E.,(2016). Cato Institute. Policing in America: Understanding Public Attitudes Toward the Police. Results from a National Survey. Retrieved from https://www.cato.org/survey-reports/policing-america