“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” – Justice Louis D. Brandeis
Privacy advocates argue that knowing “what the government is up to” is the first step in ensuring that the government respects the civil liberties of its citizens, and that transparency is especially important given the government’s increasingly use of new technologies (like drones) for law enforcement.
The Texas Privacy Act has fairly extensive bi-annual reporting requirements for any law enforcement agency using a drone. These requirements, if followed, could assuage Texans’ concerns about invasive use of police drones.
On the other hand, it may be argued that some of the reporting requirements are too onerous. As adoption of drone technology by law enforcement agencies grows, I expect to see some debate about necessity and practicality of the reports.
The Reporting Requirements
Law enforcement agencies with a population greater than 150,000 are subject to bi-annual reporting requirements. In every odd year, the agency must issue a written report and post it to their website. The report must include:
(1) the number of times an unmanned aircraft was used, organized by date, time, location, and the types of incidents and types of justification for the use;
(2) the number of criminal investigations aided by the use of an unmanned aircraft and a description of how the unmanned aircraft aided each investigation;
(3) the number of times an unmanned aircraft was used for a law enforcement operation other than a criminal investigation, the dates and locations of those operations, and a description of how the unmanned aircraft aided each operation;
(4) the type of information collected on an individual, residence, property, or area that was not the subject of a law enforcement operation and the frequency of the collection of this information; and
(5) the total cost of acquiring, maintaining, repairing, and operating or otherwise using each unmanned aircraft for the preceding 24 months.
Are These Requirements Necessary or Oppressive?
Right now, the Arlington Police Department is the only law enforcement agency we know of actively using a drone and has filed one report.
As more departments begin adopting drone technology, it could be argued that reporting requirement #4 may deter some law enforcement agencies from adopting this technology. As Sgt. Brook Rollins, who manages the unmanned aircraft program for the Arlington Police Department noted, “It’s virtually impossible in a public setting to fly somewhere and avoid [capturing] video of private residences and structures completely.”
Sgt. Rollins made this statement in the context of managing storage of the data collected by drones, not in a discussion about the reporting requirements, but his observation raises a challenge that many departments are likely to face.