ST. LOUIS • In Chief Sam Dotson’s vision of modern policing, a drone would circle Busch Stadium to watch for terrorists, or silently pursue a criminal who thought the chase was over when the officer in the car behind him turned off its red lights and siren.
And Dotson is working to make it happen.
“Criminals believe, and with some truth, that if they flee from police officers, officers will not pursue and they will ultimately elude capture,” Dotson wrote in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. It was a preliminary step toward seeking approval for unmanned — and unarmed — flight.
“If we are serious about crime reduction strategies, we must look to new technologies which help keep officers and the public safe and apprehend criminals,” he said in the March 25 correspondence.
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose assent is required, also wrote to the FAA to offer “enthusiastic support.” She declined to elaborate, saying through a spokeswoman: “The letter speaks for itself.”
Dotson said he would seek donations and grants to pay for the miniature airplanes, which run from $60,000 to $300,000 each — pricey, but still cheaper and safer than a helicopter.
Privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union — already grappling with recent news that the FBI has been selectively using drones for surveillance over U.S. soil — are balking at word of Dotson’s contact with the FAA.
“This is a significant expansion of government surveillance,” complained Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Our laws have not kept up with our privacy rights. Our Fourth Amendment privacy rights aren’t safe from unreasonable search and seizure when you’re looking at drones.”
Dotson said drones are not capable of anything that helicopters don’t already do — or that existing laws don’t already protect.
“This isn’t Big Brother, this is a decision to make everyone in the community safer,” he insisted.
St. Louis is hardly the first police department interested in the technology.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, another privacy advocate, discovered through Freedom of Information requests late last year that dozens of police agencies submitted FAA applications.
In some cases, agencies shelved their programs because of public pressure before even getting off the ground. In Seattle, the mayor ordered the police department to return the devices because of public outrage.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said he thinks drones could provide a safer way to pursue fugitives.
“We’re proceeding in a very cautious way,” he said in an interview a few days ago. “First we must look at the technology and if we decide to use the technology, to what extent it will be used.”
The kind of capabilities Dotson advocates could be years away, said Kurt Frisz, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, which represents police helicopter pilots.
It is one of several groups working with the FAA to develop rules for domestic use of drones that Congress mandated by the end of next year. So far, the FAA has granted permission only to about a half-dozen police departments, mainly in rural areas where drones would not interfere with airports.
Police account for only about 5 percent of drone applicants, who include businesses, universities and news media. The FAA requires that a civilian drone remain within sight of its operator, and fly no higher than 400 feet above ground.
Equipment available within those parameters uses either a battery or small gasoline engine, capable of no more than an hour of flight at a time, Frisz said.
Military drones can remain aloft for 36 hours at a time and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require ground crews of hundreds of people, he noted.
Dotson believes it’s only a matter of time before drones can be pre-programmed to cruise for hours and lock on to fleeing vehicles. Since late February, 290 drivers have fled from St. Louis officers and in May the average was two a day, according to the department.
“The automobile didn’t go from the Model T to a Porsche, there were many incremental steps along the way,” Dotson said.
PRIVACY ISSUES UNSETTLED
While Congress mandated safety rules for domestic drones, no agency is assigned to privacy issues. A patchwork of state regulations is emerging, and some states have prohibited drones all together.
A bill awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature in Illinois would prohibit police from deploying drones without warrants — except in critical situations — or using photos from them in court. The legislation also would forbid drones from being equipped with weapons.
In April, the Missouri House passed a bill to make the state a “no drone zone,” but it failed in the Senate.
The law would have banned warrantless surveillance via manned or unmanned aircraft, and required journalists to seek permission from property owners before using unmanned aircraft. It also would have required private organizations or state agencies to seek permission for any airborne surveillance.
That proposal sent police into panic mode, fearing that helicopters could be grounded, said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, who also is business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
“It was a nonsolution to a nonproblem,” Roorda said. “But the discussion is far from over.”
Frisz hopes legislators wait for the FAA regulations before considering any more drone laws. He said 39 states have proposed anti-drone legislation.
“A lot of this legislation is a knee-jerk reaction to drone hysteria,” he said. “Let’s see what regulations are going to be before we make laws about something we can’t even do yet.”
Frisz, who also is a St. Louis County police captain, helped craft the Metro Air Support helicopter partnership among his department, the city and St. Charles County. He said he sees drones (he prefers to call them unmanned aerial vehicles) as an expansion of public safety, not a threat to helicopters.
Drones cannot rescue people or deploy officers into scenes, like helicopters. The FAA does not allow drones to fly at night. They are more at the mercy of weather. And, the agency requires each to have an operator and spotter, both with the same credentials.
There also are safety concerns about what happens to people below if radio interference interrupts the controls, or the drone otherwise crashes. For now, their weight is limited to four pounds.
“It’s very attractive to chiefs who want this bright, shiny new object, but at the same time you need to look at what you can do and what can’t you do,” Frisz said.
His chief, Tim Fitch, said he never attends a police conference without a company pitching its latest drone technology. So far, Fitch is not impressed.
“We’re not going to be out in front on this one,” he said. “But it’s certainly something we’re going to keep an eye on.”
ALTERNATIVE USES FOR DRONES
The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado was one of the first to get FAA approval, and started using drones in 2009, said Benjamin Miller, its program manager.
Private companies provided two battery-operated drones for free that he said otherwise would have cost about $50,000 combined. He said they cost about $25 an hour to operate. (Frisz said a helicopter costs about $250 an hour.) One of Mesa County’s drones can fly for about 15 minutes, the other about an hour. Each can fit in a backpack.
Miller said there seems like a lot of fuss for not a lot of technology. “At the end of the day, you’re going to pull a radio-controlled toy out of a box that can fly for 15 minutes, sometimes not even above the trees,” Miller said. “I found myself thinking, ‘Why in the world am I working with FAA for this?’”
So far, Mesa County has used drones to photograph and create three-dimensional models of crimes scenes, and help search for missing people.
Miller said the fire department and public works division also use them.
The community used to spend about $10,000 on a private plane to conduct an annual government-mandated aerial survey of a landfill. “We did it in about two hours for $50,” Miller said. “We’re now dreaming beyond the stuff we dreamt of before.”
Miller is considering equipping a drone to act as a temporary radio relay tower in rural areas or where regular towers have been destroyed.
“That’s huge when you think of Oklahoma,” he said. “Where a tornado knocks down all of the equipment, I can have an antenna in the air within 15 minutes.”
Privacy concerns have been raised and addressed, he said. He has spoken to police groups around the country and determined that secrecy, or the perception of it, can ground a program.
“We’ve been open and transparent about it from the beginning,” Miller said. “The resistance is gone, but every now and then, we get a new community member come in and ask about it with the sheriff. They come in with the expectation that we’re hiding a Predator drone that we got from the military that’s armed with missiles hiding in a hangar. But we’re so far away from that, it’s just crazy.”
Dotson said he is open to a public discussion here.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Does the solution make sense?’” he said. “And if it does, we should use it and not fall to political pressure.
“We all know technology helps makes life better, and I don’t think I would be doing my job if I wasn’t pushing this conversation.”