Justice Department: Tips for Implementing Drones in Public Safety


The Office of Justice Programs’ (OJP) National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has released a report examining issues regarding the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for public safety.

The report, entitled “Considerations and Recommendations for Implementing an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program,” is the result of a two-day meeting hosted by NIJ in August 2015. NIJ is the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

According to a report summary from NIJ, the meeting assembled experts from federal and local law enforcement agencies, civil liberties organizations, and aviation organizations to examine the emerging issues and concerns by state, local, and tribal law enforcement and public safety agencies on the use of drones.

The agency says the goal of the meeting was to come up with a “blueprint for how law enforcement agencies can use unmanned aircraft systems most effectively, fairly and transparently.”

NIJ says although drones are “beneficial in assisting law enforcement in a number of ways,” the technology is, indeed, bringing up “concerns within the community about the possibility of police violating privacy rights through aerial surveillance.”

The agency thus recommends that public safety officials “engage the community early on” when they’re looking to bring drones on board. In addition, the agency recommends they “create a community advisory panel on the implementation of new technologies, such as UAS.”

However, citing Bureau of Justice statistics, only roughly 350 U.S. law enforcement agencies have “aviation programs in active use” – in part due to “the substantial cost of starting and maintaining a program and bureaucratic hurdles needed to approve the use of such technology.”

Mike O’Shea, a senior law enforcement program manager with NIJ, says in the agency’s report, “The transparency of what you’re doing as an agency can make a difference between whether or not the community accepts what you’re doing or doesn’t accept [it]. And in the case of unmanned aerial vehicles, one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement is getting public acceptance.”

NIJ also suggests that public safety officers are “briefed on the capabilities and intended use of the technology so that there will be a common message when officials interact with the public.”

“Promoting the responsible use of unmanned aircraft systems is critical,” NJIT’s report says, adding that agencies must have “sound policies in place governing the collection, use and retention of data” and must be “transparent in how they are using these systems.”

In addition, agencies must “fully understand the complex legal environment in which unmanned aerial vehicles operate.”

NIJ notes that the “decision of whether and how [drones] should be adopted is one that every law enforcement agency must make for itself, and that decision should be made in coordination with community members.”

Considering that the use of drone technology continues expanding for public safety agencies, NIJ concludes with the following statement: “The mission should drive the technology; the technology should not drive the mission.”

The OJP, headed by Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason, is charged with developing the nation’s capacity to prevent and control crime, administer justice, and assist victims.

OJP has six bureaus and offices: the Bureau of Justice Assistance; the Bureau of Justice Statistics; the National Institute of Justice; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; the Office for Victims of Crime; and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking.

The full report can be accessed here.

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