Howard County police to launch one-year drone field test

Five months after the Howard County Police Department formed a workgroup to evaluate the possible use of drones in police operations, the agency is following the group’s recommendation to purchase three drones for a one-year field test.

The workgroup examined various issues related to drone use in law enforcement, including usefulness, transparency, training and privacy issues.

“Law enforcement agencies across the nation have adopted aerial drones for a variety of uses, like locating lost children and seniors, providing real time information in crisis situations, reaching remote crime scenes, and aiding search-and-rescue operations,” said Police Chief Lisa Myers. “We are taking a measured approach to using the technology with three drones to start the year-long field test.”

The HCPD will follow guidelines from the ACLU to ensure the community can benefit from drone technology without privacy concerns. The department plans to use drones in situations when life and safety are at risk, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to criminal activity. They will not be used for mass surveillance that could violate First Amendment-protected activities.

Images taken by the three new drones, which together will cost $38,400, 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. All other images will be deleted. 

The field test will start with up to 10 officers who will stay in their current assignments and respond to incidents when a drone is needed. They will be trained and certified remote pilots, as required by the FAA. 

“Howard County is known throughout our state and nation as one of America’s safest communities. The implementation of drones by the Howard County Police Department will improve our abilities to be quicker, more agile, and more effective at protecting our residents,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. “I want to thank Chief Myers and the Howard County Police Department for researching, planning, and deploying forward-thinking, innovative drone technology. We are committed to using best practices that will improve safety for our officers while protecting the civil liberties of all of our residents.”  

The workgroup is comprised of approximately 20 members, representing 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.

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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 will purchase three drones for use during the field test, for a total of $38,400. Additional costs may be incurred for training.

What are the drone usage restrictions to address privacy considerations?

The HCPD will follow 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 deployed when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to criminal activity.  
  • Drones may be deployed 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. 
  • Drones may be used for training purposes and at certain outreach and educational events.

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. All other images are deleted.

When will HCPD need a warrant to use a drone?

As with ANY criminal investigation, HCPD must have a warrant based on probable cause if the use of a drone in that investigation could impact a person's reasonable expectation of privacy.

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 will start with up to 10 officers who will stay in their current assignments and respond to incidents when a drone is needed. They will be trained and 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.