According to Police Chief Eric Winstrom, the rules for the use of police drones will detail the conditions under which the unmanned aircraft will be utilized to assist law enforcement.
This will include investigations into critical incidents, searches, monitoring of large-scale events, investigations into traffic accidents, and investigations into crime scenes.
The Grand Rapids Police Department does not have any drones at this time; however, the Kent County Sheriff's Office and the Michigan State Police both have drones and have been known to use them within Grand Rapids on occasion.
The presentation of draft rules will not mean that the department has the go-ahead to purchase drones. The Grand Rapids City Commission will still need to give the department permission to use drones before the department can purchase drones. An open and public discussion on the implications of employing the new technology is necessary prior to that consideration.
Concerns about the possibility of the police department purchasing ShotSpotter gunfire detection technology led to a revision of the city's policy regarding the acquisition of surveillance technology in the latter half of 2021, which resulted in the requirement that public hearings be held.
Winstrom envisions holding a community meeting in each of the city's three wards to communicate, explain, and answer questions concerning the use of police drones by the department.
In the past, the department has considered using drones for a variety of purposes, including but not limited to investigations and critical incidents, including as first responders to incidents.
Winstrom indicated that his department would not use drones as First Responders, citing potential concerns from the local community. He stated that it would be something to look into in the future when the department has adequate staffing to have personnel on standby in the station to pilot the drones. If the community is comfortable with that use, he said it would be something to look into.
Police drones make the department more efficient
Winstrom says that efficiency is the best way to describe the most important benefit that drones give to the department.
The chief cited an incident that occurred in August on the Southeast Side where someone stole a vehicle while a baby who was only six months old was riding in the backseat. The car was abandoned a few blocks away, but the child was still inside.
Officers were aware that they only had a short amount of time to find the baby before the child suffered injuries or something even worse due to the heat of the summer, so they initiated a large-scale search with a large number of officers and patrol cars.
The authorities were able to locate both the stolen vehicle and the baby, who was unharmed; however, the search could have been conducted much more efficiently with an eye in the sky.
Winstrom cited the standoff on the city's West Side in November as another example. During this incident, a man barricaded himself in a home, shot at police, and stabbed a police dog numerous times before being taken into custody.
As a part of the incident, the department received assistance from the Kent County Sheriff's Office, who used a drone to provide real-time vantage points on the situation to the department.
Drone rules to limit surveillance
Winstrom stated that he would not use the word “surveillance” to describe how law enforcement officials would use drones during large-scale events such as demonstrations and other events like ArtPrize.
He indicated that the drones would be utilized in the interests of safety. The policy regarding the purchase of surveillance technology in the city has been revised, and the new policy outlaws the use of surveillance equipment to harass, intimidate, or discriminate against any individual or group.
The policy also requires the requesting department to identify any potential impacts that the surveillance technology might have on civil liberties and civil rights, and the policy stipulates that specific measures will be put into place to protect the general public from any potential adverse impacts.
Winstrom says that the time frame for the department to buy and get the drones depends on a number of factors, such as what the municipal committee wants and what the public says.
If everything goes according to plan, he stated that he could anticipate the acquisitions being made around July, which is when the city's new budget for 2023–2024 will go into effect.
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