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Legislation would expand limited use of drones by police

Legislation would expand limited use of drones by police agencies

DeKALB – DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery said drone use by law enforcement is limited to a few categories, such as search and rescue operations and crime scene analysis.

In DeKalb’s case, a drone owned by a concerned resident was used to take photos of public parking areas for Safe Streets Initiative research, as well as to monitor a gunman who had barricaded himself in an apartment in the Annie Glidden North neighborhood. DeKalb County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Andy Sullivan, meanwhile, said a drone provided by county Coroner Dennis Miller has been used to investigate a handful of traffic crashes.

However, Sycamore police Cmdr. Steve Cook and Genoa Police Chief Robert Smith said their departments have not used drones, but they might be considered in the future to get an aerial view of crime scenes.

Although local law enforcement agencies’ use of drones has been limited, legislation introduced in the Illinois Senate seeks to expand the usage of the devices.

“The two areas that are probably the most controversial [when expanding drone use] are general surveillance and crowd monitoring,” Lowery said. “Those areas are probably where organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have proffered arguments.”

But in response to the fatal shooting at October’s Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, which claimed the lives of 59 people, including gunman Stephen Paddock, a bill was introduced in February that would provide an exemption for law enforcement agencies to use drones to prepare for or monitor safety and security at large-scale events.

A large-scale event is defined as a public or private event attended by more than 100 people at a sports or entertainment arena, stadium, convention hall, special event center, amusement facility, a special event area licensed or permitted by a local government or an event open to the public that takes place in a public way or on government-owned property.

Use would be limited to legitimate public safety purposes, such as evaluating crowd size, density or movement, assessing public safety vulnerabilities or weaknesses, determining appropriate staffing levels for law enforcement or other public safety personnel or identifying possible criminal activity, according to the bill. Drones also cannot be equipped with tear gas, stun guns or other dangerous projectiles.

The legislation, Senate Bill 2562, has been approved by the Senate. However, the House has attached two amendments to the bill, one of which was approved in committee, and one of which was tabled after a vote not to adopt it in committee.

Lowery said he received no invasion of privacy complaints when a drone was used to photograph different parking lots, but if drones are used by anyone in an unlawful manner, there could be an invasion of privacy.

“However, if [drones] are used within the framework of the law, their benefits can be impactful,” Lowery said. “For those who are committing a criminal act, their expectation or right to privacy can be diminished within the law, whether it is through police use of a drone to view a barricaded gunman, the execution of a search warrant or some other measure within the law.”

Miller, who also is a coordinator with the DeKalb County Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, said drones are quite useful for monitoring flood levels and damage assessment after natural disasters such as the 2015 Fairdale tornado. He also has been cooperative with area law enforcement to use the drone for their needs.

“If resources that I have could make their job easier, why not make things like a search and rescue easier?” Miller asked. “It’s another set of eyes that can cover more ground than someone walking along a field or river.”

Within the past year, Miller said his drone has been used by the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office at least three times.

Under the bill, if a police department owned at least one drone, it would be required to write an annual report to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority indicating the number of times in the previous year a drone was deployed under the permitted uses.

Miller said there also are Federal Aviation Administration rules that drone operators must follow.

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