New Orleans Police Discuss New Drone Fleet Use with Public

Dec. 4, 2023
With a commitment to transparency, New Orleans police officials met with civic leaders and residents to talk about how the department will operate its new fleet of four drones.

The New Orleans Police Department will soon send in the drones — but in a sense, they're already here.

At a deadly traffic pileup in dense fog near Manchac in late October, drones assisted Louisiana State Police's crash reconstruction team. Three years ago, as protests over the murder of George Floyd swept New Orleans, State Police drones surveilled the crowds, according to reporting by The Lens.

One a mass casualty incident, the other a peaceful demonstration, the two events illustrate why setting up a framework for the use of drones feels so urgent. They are changing how policing is done. Their life-saving potential is great, but they also raise concerns about privacy and spying.

The NOPD has purchased its first four drones and trained 10 pilots. It's seeking public input on how they're used.

"Public safety agencies around the country are looking for ways to expand their use of drones in emergency and disaster recovery situations ... while still being mindful of concerns about surveillance and the limits imposed by the Fourth Amendment," said Joshua Turner, former president of the Federal Communications Bar Association and an attorney whose practice areas include unmanned aircraft systems.

How the NOPD strikes that balance is an issue that is still, literally, up in the air.

The drone show

On Tuesday night, around 50 people, including law enforcement, civic leaders, journalists and citizens, turned up to the police academy at 4650 Paris Ave. to see a demonstration of the new drones and ask questions. The night included the following exchanges:

"Is there an option to not use drones?" (No.)

"What brand are the drones?" (Skydio, American-made.)

"What happens if pilots get malicious or cute?" (It won't happen. The 10 FAA-certified NOPD pilots received extensive training over months.)

NOPD Superintendent Anne Kirkpatrick stressed the department is committed to transparency, as well as new technologies that can increase the efficiency of a thinly staffed force. She asked for public feedback on the NOPD's draft policy. The Department of Justice and federal consent decree monitors also are weighing in.

"I'm going to be steadfast in making sure our policies provide the safeguards to protect your privacy as well as mine," Kirkpatrick said. "As well as every member of this police department."

The drones will be deployed in limited circumstances, said Deputy Superintendent Jonette Williams. They'll provide real-time visuals of scenes, help police make informed decisions in the areas of crime scene and vehicle crash documentation, and will be used for surveillance pursuant to valid search warrants, officer training and disaster response.

"Just because we have a drone doesn't mean a drone is going up in the air for any and everything," Williams said. "These drones will make our investigations better."

The process for drone deployment includes multiple levels of authorization, she said. Investigating officers must get supervisor approval for use of a drone. Only then would a pilot arrive on the scene. Each pilot will log the drones' usage. As with body-worn cameras, footage captured through drones is subject to public inspection.

District Attorney Jason Williams, in a statement, lauded the NOPD for its transparency surrounding the drone program. He said his office hopes to be able to show juries "high-quality drone footage of crime scene immediately following incidents, rather than relying exclusively on sketches and photographs."

The four drones cost the city $15,000, plus $85,000 for licensing, spare parts and batteries, according to press secretary John Lawson, who said the general fund covered the costs.

It's the latest manifestation of a shift in the city's approach to policing and surveillance. Amid 2022's record violent crime surge, the City Council rescinded a ban on police use of facial recognition. NOPD consultant and former NYPD patrol chief Fausto Pichardo first floated the drone suggestion to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, according to New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation chairperson Elizabeth Boh.

The council will audit the drones' deployments, just as they audit facial recognition requests, said Council member Eugene Green, who lent his vocal support for the drone program at Tuesday's meeting.

"We have not seen any abuse of technology, and that includes everything from license-plate readers to facial recognition and DNA technology," Green said. "If you have a concern, know the City Council is actively involved in the oversight of the police department."

Concerns aired

After Tuesday's demo, both the Office of the Independent Police Monitor and the Eye on Surveillance watchdog group voiced concerns.

"Our coalition stands firm against the use of drones," said Allie Beth Rose, strategic coordinator for the Eye on Surveillance Coalition. "We see it as another ineffective, expensive, racially biased technology that won't necessarily make people safer."

Independent police monitor Stella Cziment called for greater specificity in the draft policy.

"Right now, we aren't receiving a cohesive vision about what drone use will be like in New Orleans and what the parameters are," she said. "While policy dictates various ways the drones could be used, including tactical operations and situational awareness, I don't know what those terms mean in terms of their operations and day-to-day use.

"We have no idea what kind of public event would trigger the use of drones, and that lack of clarity is concerning with respect to bias-free policing."

What other police departments are doing

Over the past two years, William Bell has sold drones to at least six law enforcement agencies statewide for SITECH Louisiana. He said as drones become more rugged, user-friendly, affordable and feature-laden, police are using them more widely. More than 1,500 police departments nationwide now use drones, according to the ACLU.

"If somebody makes that investment and starts a (drone) division, it becomes word of mouth — 'This guy has it, well now I want it,'" Bell said.

His best sellers range in price from $5,000 to $15,000.

"The most popular thing we hear it being used for is search and rescue, missing persons using thermal imaging, surveillance, accident reconstruction and scouting scenes before entering them," he said.

Thermal imaging can reveal the number of people on a scene and whether they're armed. And even though a drone's speed maxes out around 40 mph, it can survey a wide area and track a vehicle with great precision from 300 feet up, with less risk to officers and civilians than a traditional chase, Bell said. District Attorney Jason Williams touted drones' "speed and nimbleness ... after natural disasters" when it comes to surveying areas inaccessible to vehicles.

NOPD superintendent Jonette Williams on Tuesday said how and whether the city's Real-Time Crime Center would monitor drone footage is still being worked out. But Bryan Lagarde says his nonprofit Project NOLA — which provides citizens security cameras in exchange for police access to their footage — has a drone arm in the works. It could launch in as soon as a year.

"We're coming up with our own solution that will tie into the crime camera platform," Lagarde said. "We're doing facial recognition, license plate recognition."

He's waiting for "drone in the box" technology to improve, which allows drones to remotely deploy to a predetermined location, then return to recharge. Unlike the NOPD's current drone program, which mandates officers keep the drone within their field of vision, the drone-in-the-box program does not require a human present.

Project NOLA mandates its cameras can be pointed at public areas only. The same rule will apply to drones.

"People aren't going to want drones looking in their backyards. It's an invasion of privacy," Lagarde said. "(Drones will be) just like crime cameras — thou shalt not zoom in where thou shouldn't be zooming in."

But that line isn't always clear-cut. Courts, police departments and citizens continue to debate what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy.

A case heard last month in the Michigan Supreme Court about whether a township violated a homeowner's Fourth Amendment rights when it sent a drone to monitor the five-acre property for zoning infractions is still pending.

"Drones can be very cost efficient, but just like with facial recognition, you have to protect people's privacy," Lagarde said. "With the proper guardrails, it's an amazing tool."

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