58 people were killed and nearly 500 others were injured, authorities say, when a gunman fired on the Route 91 country music festival. As we mourn, some ask if drones could help improve safety at events like this?
While many disagree, some police agencies are moving forward and already purchasing drones; 167 such agencies bought drones in 2016. Other agencies are speaking out about using drones for similar upcoming events.
Las Vegas Massacre: Are Drones The Solution?
58 people were killed and nearly 500 others were injured, authorities say, when a gunman fired on the Route 91 country music festival. Even as we mourn, some people are asking if drones could help improve safety at events like this? Can drones help prevent the senseless loss of life?
When I first heard the idea suggested, by a CNN commentator, I was surprised, but the more I considered it, the more logical it seemed. Could a drone, in the hands of a properly trained operator, help improve safety and reduce the risk to human life in a situation like the one in Las Vegas?
Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, says…probably.
“You could have a drone up in two minutes in Las Vegas and fired an incendiary device into [shooter Stephen Craig Paddock’s] room,” Levin said in an interview with LA Weekly. “If he had weapons of mass destruction, you’re going to wish you had a drone.”
If that sounds like a fantasy, just consider the tactical benefits that your DJI drone could offer first responders; they are fast, can gain unique vantage points quickly, have the ability to hover and can carry small payloads.
However, the idea of police drones zipping around doesn’t sit well with everyone.
Drones can gain vantage points quickly, affordably, and effectively coordinate with the human side on site. Naturally, the mere suggestion of allowing police departments a longer leash regarding surveillance drones whirring around our skies, gives a lot of people pause. Not everyone is eager to further ‘militarize’ our local law enforcement, or give them supposed free surveillance-related reign whenever an incident is deemed worthy of drone use.
These concerns are literally “shelving” police drone projects. Back in 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) purchased three drones from the Seattle Police Department.
What makes this an interesting transaction is the fact that the Seattle PD was selling because they were unable to get approval to use their drones, then after the purchase, then the LAPD was unable to get approval for use either. In terms of drone technology, three years is a very long time.
Beck says he’s waiting for direction from the Police Commission on what will be allowed, but the drones could be deployed in situations where suspects are barricaded or holding hostages and where an aerial view might be helpful.
Recently, the LAPD renewed its efforts to use their purchased drone hardware.
The Los Angeles Police Department has made its pitch on how it would operate drones to the commission overseeing it.
The proposed guidelines say drones would be deployed for search and rescue operations as well as specific situations, such as those involving active shooters.
In addition, department-operated drones would not have any weapons capabilities.
Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, argued the LAPD will seek to expand its use of drones, no matter what the guidelines say.
“We can only imagine how drones will ultimately be used, so that is why it’s not just about potential legal challenges, but rather ensuring that from the outset we are not giving away this technology that we know has the potential to dramatically interfere with our privacy,” Ochoa told KPCC.
LAPD Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill acknowledged residents’ unease over the potential for creeping militarization and invasion of privacy, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“It is a legitimate public concern and something that … I’m grappling with and suspect will be grappling with in a much more significant manner as we move forward,” she said, according to the Times.
The LAPD insists its drone fleet would not violate any local or federal laws.
Elsewhere in the United States, some police departments are having better luck with their drone program approvals and are already using their drones, such as in Little Rock, Arkansas:
North Little Rock police recently purchased five drones — from a specialty shop in the area, not from a galaxy far, far away — and plan to have them buzzing through the air by the end of October for search and rescue missions, visual reconnaissance, disaster response and other situations beyond routine police calls.
and in Maine:
Maine State Police have used drones to take pictures at 18 crash scenes so far, said Scott, who commands the agency’s traffic safety unit.
Three members of Scott’s unit have been licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, and they also have performed about 35 training flights, he said.
The state police have bought three DJI Matrice 200 drones, each costing about $5,000 and stored in protective cases.
To use them, the agency’s licensed pilots, who all have worked as crash investigators, must drive to the accident scene and assemble the machines.
The numbers are small, but growing. In 2016, at least 167 agencies purchased drones.
At least 167 such agencies bought drones in 2016, more than double the number that purchased the aerial devices in the previous seven years combined, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.
As more and more agencies purchase drones, I think we will see them used at events like the Route 91 music festival, events like the upcoming Day for Night Festival in Houston, Texas, and in preparation for the event, law enforcement is already discussing it.
Former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland spoke out in favor of using such drones at large events.
“I see no reason why commercial vendors are allowed to fly large drones over large crowds and outdoor events here in Houston, but the law enforcement community doesn’t use that same technology,” McClelland said, according to KTRK-TV.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo also spoke out about the potential uses for drones.
“When you talk about drones in this country in the hands of law enforcement, it invokes a lot of privacy issues, it invokes a lot of fear, and it invokes a lot of backlash,” Acevedo told KTRK-TV.
While it’s important to distinguish between weaponized and non-weaponized drones, drone use by first responders is a growing trend, and you can expect it to continue in the years ahead. It also creates an opportunity for those of us in the drone community, who want to use our specialized drone skills to give back and help.