The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has received the green light to launch an $80,000 drone program to enhance surveillance capabilities in various situations. However, critics fear potential civil rights violations due to the program.
The Portland City Council has approved up to $80,000 from the PPB budget to purchase a dozen unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
These flying cameras are expected to expedite visual scoping and mapping of incident areas compared to conventional photography and video methods.
The PPB's plan involves a year-long drone program, with initial deployment in the traffic and explosives division.
The Police Drones will be used for various purposes, including documenting major crash scenes, Search and Rescue efforts, surveilling suspicious items such as explosives, assessing damage and risks during emergencies, and locating armed suspects in hostage situations with the approval of a critical incident commander.
Despite the outlined objectives, critics, including police accountability advocacy group Portland Copwatch, have raised concerns over the potential misuse of drones for privacy and safety violations.
Drone Program Raises Concerns
Marc Poris from Portland Copwatch addressed city commissioners during a March 22 council meeting, reportedly expressing concerns about the “buy first, figure out the problems later” approach.
He warned against trusting PPB's assurances and raised the possibility of drone involvement in future incidents involving people in mental health crises.
PPB Sgt. Jim Defrain responded to these concerns, stating that the drones would not be used for general surveillance. He emphasized that the pilot project would adhere to a standard operating procedure more restrictive than Oregon law, preventing officers from using drones for indiscriminate surveillance or crowd control events unless a life-threatening incident occurs.
According to the PPB, neighboring law enforcement agencies in Columbia and Washington counties already use drones.
The bureau has an existing drone, purchased in 2019-20 but never used, due to budget cuts in the traffic division shortly after acquisition. This older model will now be integrated into the new pilot drone program.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell highlighted the benefits of drones, including reducing officers' time at crash scenes and minimizing public inconvenience following major incidents.
The year-long pilot drone program is set to commence within the next two months.
Photo credit: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland
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