Grand Rapids, Michigan is gearing up to introduce Police Drones this September. On Tuesday morning, August 22, the City Commission's fiscal committee unanimously gave the nod for an approximately $100,000 purchase, accounting for eight DJI drones for law enforcement purposes. The final say on this purchase is slated for the commission's 7 p.m. meeting.
The items set for purchase encompass six DJI Mavic Enterprise drones, two DJI Matrice 30T drones, along with batteries, kits, carry cases, launch platforms, memory cards, and a yearly Axon Air license.
Grand Rapids Police Chief, Eric Winstrom, elaborated on the multi-faceted uses for these drones. They will come into play during “Search and Rescue operations, fleeing suspect searches, crime scene documentation, standoff situations, and more.”
Policymakers believe that the DJI drones will lead to a notable uptick in departmental efficiency and safety for both officers and the general public. Moreover, the drones bring with them yearly expenses ranging from $10,000 to $15,000.
Interestingly, this isn't the first local incorporation of drones. Law enforcement in Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, and even the Kent County Sheriff's Office, are already using these aerial devices.
However, the decision hasn't been met without some skepticism. A portion of the Grand Rapids community has voiced their unease concerning privacy, potential misuse, and the overarching fear of intensified policing.
Addressing these worries, Winstrom assured, “the drones will not be weaponized,” and they will not be equipped with Artificial Intelligence or facial recognition capabilities.
The clear stance is summed up in the department's policy: “The use of (drones) is prohibited for the sole purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution.”
City Manager Mark Washington had previously hinted at the potential use of DJI drones during unpermitted protests, especially if they pose road obstructions. Addressing concerns about drones employing facial recognition, Winstrom reiterated, “Not only do we not intend to use it, we are prohibited from using it by our policy.”
The city's Office of Oversight and Public Accountability (OPA) will be supervising the police drone program. In a discussion about the drone program, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss asked the OPA Director, Brandon Davis, about the uniqueness of this oversight. Davis responded, stating he's “not aware of any other police department that has this level of oversight, as it relates to surveillance use.”
For transparency, any complaints about the drones will be redirected from GRPD's Internal Affairs Unit to the OPA. Furthermore, the GRPD is committed to submitting a quarterly report to the OPA, detailing the drones' usage patterns.
This decision didn't happen overnight. The GRPD has reportedly been mulling over the potential of drones since early this year. Their outreach extended to neighborhood associations, public hearings, and forums to discuss the proposal. Former police chief, Eric Payne, had previously toyed with the idea of police drones. However, it was under his successor, Winstrom, who took office in March 2022, that this idea is coming to fruition.
A recent memo to the commissioners outlined the various uses for the DJI drones, from reconstructing accident scenes and documenting crime locations to aiding during public disturbances. However, the draft policy is strict on inappropriate uses. It states drones won't be used for random surveillance, weapon deployment, or activities protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Conclusively, while drones present an avenue for enhanced law enforcement capabilities in Grand Rapids, the decision brings with it a slew of responsibilities and stipulations to ensure these tools serve the community without infringing upon their rights.
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