Under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, drone footage has been released of the Vancouver police clearing Oppenheimer Park in 2019 after receiving a report of a man being shot in the now-dismantled encampment. The use of the police drone caused concerns with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which would like to see all police drone operations listed on the website of the Vancouver Police Department.
Drone footage released of Vancouver police clearing Oppenheimer Park in 2019
On Dec. 12, 2019, a Skyranger drone from the Vancouver police department flew 150 feet over the park and recorded 18 minutes of video footage as officers and members of the emergency response team were going tent to tent in response to a report of a man being shot. It was already dark when the footage was recorded with the drone’s thermal camera.
The video was first released on October 20 to CBC under a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act request for any thermal imaging material captured by a drone or other means at the Oppenheimer Park between January 2018 and June 2020, reports Tricity News.
The footage and emails related to December 12, 2019, are now publicly available and inform us how the drone was used that night. The material includes a comment from Const. Thomas Callaghan, who operated the drone that night about “hundreds of rats moving around.”
“Nice job all around: dealing with an active shooting, locating a suspect, clearing for additional victims, addressing advocate concerns; and using the drone to maintain officer safety. Not sure if the clearing had already occurred when the [forward-looking infrared camera] was taken, but…interesting how many tents appear unoccupied…and then there’s the rodents…lots of heat signatures. Well done!” said Supt. Steve Eely in a briefing note on the incident.
A few months earlier in September 2019, the Vancouver Police Board approved the use of drones in Vancouver, Canada. Three unmanned aircraft were subsequently acquired to be used in cases that would involve missing persons, mapping crime scenes, and for disaster response. Smaller police drones were bought as well for training purposes.
A policy governing the use of the police drones states that the aircraft cannot be used for random surveillance and that recordings with no ‘evidentiary value’ need to be destroyed after 30 days. Footage that that has ‘evidentiary value’ will be kept for at least one year.
The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) deems the use of the Skyranger drone to record the activities in Oppenheimer Park to be in accordance with the policy since the shooting created “significant public and officer safety concerns.”
“What I can tell you, generally speaking, is that when exigent circumstances exist that present a threat to human life, police are able to search property to deal with that threat,” Visintin said. “This applies to actual buildings [condos, houses, etc.], as well. A critical incident like an active shooting event in a public place, with one confirmed victim, an unknown suspect, and unknown number of victims, presents exigent circumstances that would allow police to act to prevent further harm.”
Meghan McDermott, a staff lawyer, and acting policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association that has been consulted by the VPD said that the use of the drone in response to the shooting seems to be intrusive on the people living in the tents. McDermott is looking for more details to understand the VPD’s rationale for deploying the drone in this scenario.
“They could have maybe met their objective without the use of that drone,” she said Thursday. “The disconcerting thing for us is the privacy violations of the people living at that park. The gross thing on that video is how they’re going into everybody’s tents.”
McDermott suggested to the VPD that every police drone mission should be listed on their website, similarly to what is already done for the use of Tasers.
“There is no legal requirement for them to do that, but just for public trust I think it’s a wonderful idea for transparency,” she said. “It would be a minimal effort for the police and it would have a big pay-off in terms of public trust.”
The drone program of the VPD totaled $141,000, of which $100,000 was covered by a grant from the Vancouver Police Foundation and included the acquisition of six drones, training, Transport Canada certification, and fleet insurance.
The encampment at the Oppenheimer Park was cleared in April and May out of COVID-19 transmission concerns. A new encampment for the homeless has been set up in Strathcona Park.
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