A stock image of a drone

SPRINGFIELD – City Council this week considered the implementation of drone usage as a means to strengthen the methods of 21st century policing in Springfield. 

It’s a topic that both Springfield councilors and police officers are already foreshadowing as controversial, especially as it relates to Constitutional considerations.

But Chief Andy Shearer and Sergeant Brian Keetle said SPD is well-poised to bring this equipment online, and that its capabilities will only make citizens and officers safer. 

So, what exactly are drones?

Beyond hobbyists, drones are gaining national and statewide popularity among emergency personnel, having already been implemented in Eugene. They are small, unmanned aircrafts that collect intelligence through imaging, recording, lighting and communication – all without an officer onsite.

They can go where personnel cannot, flying in high-risk locations and expediting crash and crime scene processing. 

“By providing an aerial view and offering thermal imaging, the drones can provide a point of view that can only be achieved with an aircraft,” Shearer said. 

What they do ... and don’t do

Drones can be used as a de-escalation tool for police to get eyes on a volatile situation without having to be present. Eugene Police Department recently deployed a drone after receiving a call of a suicidal person near a city park. The drone “was able to get observation of the subject and relay to officers that the subject was not actually armed,” said Sergeant Keetle, who is the unit supervisor for the SPD drone team.

Other common uses include crime scene reconstruction, criminal investigations, dealing with dangerous subjects, disaster response, bombs and hazmat incidents, crowd control and hostage negotiation. They also cannot be used to conduct patrol operations without a warrant or probable cause, written consent from a property owner, or as part of a search and rescue.

“I am torn because I’ve seen drones; drones have saved my life, saved my soldiers’ lives, and have saved innocent civilians’ lives, but this isn’t Iraq. It’s not even Chicago,” said Damien Pitts, councilor and veteran.

Chief Shearer said that Springfield may not be a warzone or a city with the highest crime rate in the country, but still, “it’s very dangerous out there. We have officers that go out almost on a daily basis, and they have people armed with firearms that run from them … it’s not Chicago, it’s not Iraq, but this technology reduces risk and saves lives of law enforcement.”

City manager Nancy Newton said she sees “real potential” in this technology. 

“That would probably be the worst nightmare that I could conceive – getting that phone call that one of our officers were injured or killed in the line of duty … if we can find a technology that could help mitigate that for our officers, for our community members, that has some real potential,” she said. 

There are caveats on when and how they are deployed. What they can’t do – and what some citizens may fear – is conduct random surveillance of people or property.

“I worry that as the Springfield Police Department looks toward building that trust that was lost for various reasons, something like this is not going to help,” Pitts said, and asked how police will ensure the technology will not be used to target individuals and people of color. 

“State law and city policies strictly prohibit the use of drones for these (random) activities,” Keetle said. “It’s important to understand that Oregon law specifically states that drones cannot be weaponized.”  

Chief Shearer said many of the concerns have already been ironed out. 

“During the inception of these programs in recent years, a range of legitimate issues were brought to the forefront by communities around the country,” Shearer said. 

As a result, state legislation will guide the SPD program, and federal legislation dictates requirements for police. The SPD has also committed to providing an annual report, which will track trends, usage, successes and failures of the program. 

“The benefit of SPD remaining on the sidelines of (this) program development has allowed these concerns to be addressed through legislation,” Shearer said. The timeline has “allowed best practices to be well-established.”

Newton said that the rise of technology and privacy concerns is not unfamiliar in the modern world. 

“As I navigate the world I almost always assume that I’m on camera somewhere – factor in the traffic cameras or people’s Ring doorbells or maybe I’ve just been watching way too much CSI – I do make an assumption that if you’re at any kind of event people with their phones will be recording … that is the world that we kind of live in,” she said.

And while we can’t get Facebook to stop suggesting ads about products we just spoke about out loud, “The drone will always be operated in a constitutionally and legally sound manner that respects and protects the privacy and civil liberties of all. This means avoiding unneeded and unintended operations of drones and includes thoughtful consideration for personal privacy and public perception,” Keetle said.

Program taking flight

Through donations from other police departments and through private donors, SPD has acquired enough equipment to start its pilot program. 

“We’ve been able to acquire our entire fleet at no cost thanks to donations,” Keetle said. 

EPD has been assisting SPD in training guidance, program development, and drone deployment assistance in the past year, and are working toward establishing a “metro drone team,” Keetle said.  

The SPD drone technology is about five to seven years old, Keetle said, and has acquired four drones that are capable of indoor and outdoor flight, day or night flight, but it is limited to use during fair weather only. 

Pitts asked Keetle what the return on investment would be for a device that cannot fly in the rain in a state known for heavy rainfall. 

“The bottom line is if it’s raining, I can’t fly it,” Keetle said. “Eugene police have upgraded equipment as a lot of the other agencies in the state that are capable of flying in the rain,” and if needed, SPD could put in a mutual aid request with these departments, or may just need to wait until the weather breaks before taking flight.

“In order to achieve the level of success other agencies are having, there is a wide range of investment opportunities” that will need to be sought, Keetle said. He said that the expectation for future costs for equipment can run as high as $30,000, in addition to annual expenses up to $5,000.

SPD is also eyeing the prospect of adding Drone as First Responders (DFRs) in the future. It’s a concept still in its early stages, but it intended to bring air support to agencies that could never afford a helicopter or an airplane. 

“The model is built around a very fast deployment of a drone to a call that is in progress to provide real time information to responding officers,” Keetle said. 

EPD and Bend Police Department are both working toward going live in 2022 — the firsts in the state.