So far, 5 law enforcement agencies in Texas have applied to use drones for police purposes. The City of Arlington was one of the earliest adopters and appears to be the only law enforcement agency (APD) actively using a drone in Texas.
APD is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate two 11-pound battery-powered drones and has used its drones on several missions. APD describes these missions in its latest report, which documents flights through December 2014 :
- “Video of vehicles involved in fatal traffic crash and of resulting debris field;”
- “Patrol responded to a shooting call where the suspect shot and killed someone in an apartment parking lot and then barricading himself. Based upon the suspect having a rifle, UAS was used to search for other victims within the suspect’s line of fire. Our SWAT Team was able to collect vital intelligence without going into harm’s way to bring suspect into custody;”
- “The storm system destroyed buildings across the city in three different zones and there were widespread power outages that lasted for days. The Arlington Emergency Operation Center requested video of damaged area for storm path assessment so that proper allocation of city resources could be matched to the hardest hit areas.”
The case for using police drones is compelling. Even privacy advocates like the ACLU admit that, properly regulated, “Drones have many beneficial uses, including in search-and-rescue missions…” They can be used for hostage negotiation, bomb investigation, criminal surveillance and pursuit, and crime scene analysis, among other things.
On the other hand, the prospect of unregulated police use of drones may be considered by some as terrifying. Drones eliminate many of the practical barriers to privacy that we have historically relied on. Now, drones equipped with facial recognition software and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations could cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights.
The Law – The Texas Privacy Act
The Federal Aviation Administration does not take privacy protections into consideration when it grants a law enforcement agency approval to use drones. Texas is one of a minority of states that has adopted a statute – the Texas Privacy Act – regulating police use of drones.
In Texas, police departments are allowed to use drones for:
- Pursuant to a valid search or arrest warrant;
- in immediate pursuit of a person law enforcement officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to suspect has committed an offense, not including misdemeanors or offenses punishable by a fine only;
- for the purpose of documenting a crime scene where an offense, not including misdemeanors or offenses punishable by a fine only, has been committed;
- for the purpose of investigating the scene of a human fatality; a motor vehicle accident causing death or serious bodily injury to a person; or any motor vehicle accident on a state highway or federal interstate or highway;
- in connection with the search for a missing person;
- for the purpose of conducting a high-risk tactical operation that poses a threat to human life; or
- of private property that is generally open to the public where the property owner consents to law enforcement public safety responsibilities;
- surveying the scene of a catastrophe or other damage to determine whether a state of emergency should be declared;
- preserving public safety, protecting property, or surveying damage or contamination during a lawfully declared state of emergency; or
- conducting routine air quality sampling and monitoring, as provided by state or local law.
Law enforcement agencies that use drones in Texas are required to submit annual reports documenting each flight and the total cost. These reporting requirements are likely to be the greatest limiting factor on police drone use, an issue that we will discuss in Part 2.