Howard County police to launch one-year drone field test

Jan. 30, 2020

The Howard County Police Department is announcing the launch of a one-year field test to use drones in police operations. The program is the result of a recommendation in November from a workgroup that researched the technology for five months and proposed purchasing three drones for the field test.

Over the last eight weeks, police have trained 10 officers who will stay in their current assignments and respond to incidents when a drone is needed. They have been trained and certified as remote pilots, known as the “Part 107” certification, as required by the FAA.

“This is another step forward in our commitment to the safety and security of our residents,” said Police Chief Lisa Myers. “As technology evolves, our agency will continue to evolve with it to ensure we are providing the most effective ways to protect our communities. The drones can help us in search-and-rescue operations and provide real-time information in potentially dangerous crisis situations.”

The HCPD will follow public guidelines from the ACLU to ensure the community can benefit from drone technology without privacy concerns. The department policy allows the use of drones in situations when life and safety are at risk; when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to criminal activity; or when there is a signed search warrant from a judge for areas covered under the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure. They will not be used for mass surveillance that could violate First Amendment-protected activities.

Images taken by the three drones will not be retained unless there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of criminal activity or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or pending criminal trial. Images that do not possess any evidentiary value will be deleted.

“Howard County is known throughout our state and nation as one of America’s safest communities. The launch of the drone program by the Howard County Police Department comes after months of research, testing, and piloting this innovative drone technology,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. “I'm thrilled to see the drone program get off the ground, allowing the HCPD to be more effective and efficient, while continuing to protect all our residents' safety and civil liberties.” 

The total cost for the three drones is $33,800 and was funded in large part by a $20,000 contribution from the Howard County Police Foundation.

“The Howard County Police Foundation is proud to be able to support the purchase of emerging technologies that help the HCPD provide the most cost-effective crime prevention strategies to the community,” said Foundation President Kyri Jacobs.

The drone workgroup included representatives from police operations and administration, union leaders, risk management, policy development, training and public information. The group also includes the HCPD Citizens’ Advisory Council and Police Foundation, the Howard County Office of Law and the Sheriff’s Office.

Throughout the one-year field test period the police department will continue to monitor and evaluate the program.

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HCPD Drone Field Testing: Frequently Asked Questions

How are drones used in law enforcement?

Drones are used by police departments around the country for various public safety missions, including locating missing people, providing aerial views during crisis incidents, searching for suspects avoiding apprehension, taking photos of collision and crime scenes, and assisting in other public safety efforts within a defined perimeter.

How many drones will be used during the one-year field test and how much will they cost?

The HCPD purchased three drones for use during the field test, for a total of $33,800. A $20,000 contribution from the Howard County Police Foundation covered much of the cost for the equipment.

What are the drone usage restrictions to address privacy considerations?

The HCPD follows public guidelines from the ACLU to ensure the community can benefit from drone technology without privacy concerns. 

  • Drones MAY NOT be used for mass surveillance that could violate First Amendment-protected activities. 
  • Drones MAY be used:
    • when there is an emergency situation in a defined area in which individuals’ lives and safety are at risk, such as crisis situations, missing persons, fires or other potentially dangerous scenarios; or 
    • when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to criminal activity; or 
    • when there is a signed search warrant issued by a judge for constitutionally-protected activities.

Do police need a warrant to use a drone?

Law enforcement agencies are required to obtain a search warrant when using drones for any constitutionally-protected areas under Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure.

Are images taken from the drone retained by the police?

Images are not retained unless there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of criminal activity or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or pending criminal trial. Images that do not possess any evidentiary value will be deleted.

How will the public stay informed about drone usage by police?

The HCPD will implement drone field testing with transparency and will openly share information about drone usage.

Who will be operating the drones?

The field test includes 10 officers who will stay in their current assignments and respond to incidents when a drone is needed. They have been trained and are certified remote pilots, as required by the FAA. This is commonly referred to as a “Part 107” certification (Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 107).

How will the drone field test be monitored?

The program will operate under Special Order 2019-01, Unmanned Aircraft System Field Test, which clearly defines all required procedures and expectations for personnel and operations.  Throughout the one-year field test period the police department will monitor and evaluate the program.