Drones in Police departments: the Washington State Patrol Case Study

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Tacoma detective Sergeant Clint Thomas holds one of the 111 drones of the Washington State Patrol, a model DJI Matrix 200.

The use of drones in police departments has been rising in the past years. In this article we go over the case study of the Washington State Patrol, which has established itself as a pioneer in the use of drones for surveillance and inspection. This story shows us how drones are really proving to be an invaluable asset for police departments.

Within a few years, the Washington State Patrol has built a fleet of over 100 drones. At the last check, the Oregon State Police had three. The Washington Patrol claims that its small quadricopters are used for accident investigation, not surveillance.

Sergeant Clint Thomas, WSP detective, said that about 100 Washington State soldiers and investigators are now trained to fly drones equipped with cameras, also known as UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles.

Thomas said the patrol has acquired 111 drones produced by DJI, some of which are high-end models for consumers. Others are a more solid business model. The state can further improve and expand its fleet with a new investment recently approved by the state legislator.

Examples of drone use for the police

Thomas said his agency limits the use of remote piloted eyes in the sky to practically one job: documenting serious accidents and fatal scenes.

“We’re making a big difference in the time it takes to document that scene and clear the way,” Thomas said in an interview with Tacoma on Tuesday. “It’s a little more back-end work at the office to put it together through the software, but we’re saving a lot of time out on the road. This was the main driving force – to save time on the highways, getting those cleaned up to get the traffic going again.”

Thomas said that a compact scene of a two-car collision can be mapped in ten minutes with a DJI drone compared to half an hour or an hour using traditional methods such as a tape measure, plaster marks or laser scanners.

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Screenshot of a scene model of a 3D crash made by combining multiple photos taken by one of the drones of the state patrol.

Many local police departments and the Oregon State Police deploy drones for a wider range of purposes, including the observation of armed suspects, barricades and search and rescue. Thomas explained that the Washington State Patrol is deliberately taking a more limited approach to “getting off on the right foot”.

Thomas said that any use other than collision and crime scene mapping, as possible deployments to attend fire monitoring this summer, will require the personal approval of the head of the State patrol.

“We are not allowed to make videos or use them for surveillance,” said Thomas, elaborating the written policies of the agency. “We are very strict in the way we execute our program. Basically, we’re just taking small steps.”

The Washington State Patrol drone fleet seems to be one of the largest, if not the largest by far, owned by a state or local government anywhere in the country. A study on public safety drones published last year by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College identified the Sheriff’s department of Polk County in Florida as the largest at the time of its survey. That Sheriff’s department ran 20 drones.

How to deal with drone-policies

Privacy inspectors like the American Civil Liberties Union are closely monitoring the rapidly increasing number of law enforcement drones. The Washington State Patrol has stated that it has consulted with the ACLU state chapter while developing its policy on restricted-use drones.

ACLU Washington Director of Technology and Freedom Shankar Narayan has been critical of some of the city’s police departments for not having enough guidelines to prevent flights without warranty or lack of restrictions on data sharing.

In an interview with public radio on Tuesday, Narayan said that more transparency on surveillance technology is needed. He said he is concerned about the “slow progress of missions” since drones have the ability to collect much information.

“Although the Washington State Patrol has the best policy in the world, an average person has no resources to enforce it,” Narayan said.

State drone-related laws exist in Oregon and Idaho, but not in Washington, although not for lack of attempts. Washington legislators and Governor Jay Inslee have not seen in their eyes how permissive or restrictive it is to be, which led Inslee to veto a bill to establish a drone-policy for the state government in 2014. Individual agencies are now setting their own policies for permitted use, privacy protection and data retention.

The Oregon and Idaho legislatures voted to request a warrant to use a drone for surveillance. Idaho legislation also imposes a broader ban on photographing or recording on private property without the consent of the owner.