2009 photo provided by the Mesa County Sheriff's Department shows a Draganflyer X6 during a test flight in Mesa County, Colorado. Photo from The Associated Press
The nation's largest consortium of police officials is calling for the limited use of unmanned drones in local law enforcement operations and urging that the controversial aircraft - now popular weapons on international battlefields - not be armed.
The first national advisory for the use of unmanned aircraft issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police comes as federal lawmakers and civil rights advocates have expressed deep concerns about the vehicles' use in domestic law enforcement, especially in aerial surveillance.
Only a handful of police agencies, including the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff's Department, are currently using unmanned aircraft. But Don Roby, chairman of the IACP's aviation committee, said an increasing number of departments are considering unmanned aircraft for such things as search and rescue operations, traffic accident scene mapping and some surveillance activities.
Roby said the guidelines represent an "urgent" attempt to redefine the value of aerial drones away from battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. "It's very important that people understand that we won't be up there with armed predator drones firing away," said Roby, who also is a Baltimore Police Department captain. "Everytime you hear someone talking about the use of these vehicles, it's always in the context of a military operation. That's not what we're talking about."
In cases in which a drone is to be used to collect evidence that would likely "intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy," the IACP's new guidelines recommend that police secure search warrants prior to launching the vehicle.
On the question of arming drones, however, the IACP issued its most emphatic recommendation:
"Equipping the aircraft with weapons of any type is strongly discouraged. Given the current state of the technology, the ability to effectively deploy weapons from a small UA (un-manned aircraft) is doubtful ... (and) public acceptance of airborne use of force is likewise doubtful and could result in unnecessary community resistance to the program."
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that it "applauded" the police group for "issuing recommendations that are quite strong in some areas."
"At the same time, we don't think these recommendations go far enough to ensure true protection of privacy from drones," the ACLU said, adding that privacy protections needed to be enshrined in law "not merely promulgated by the police themselves."
Some proposed legislation, including a bill proposed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is calling for authorities to secure warrants before all uses, except in cases when the aircraft is being used to patrol the borders, when there is a threat of terror attack or in cases when life is threatened.
"Like other tools used to collect information in law enforcement, in order to use drones a warrant needs to be issued," Paul said when introducing the legislation in June. "Americans going about their everyday lives should not be treated like criminals or terrorists and have their rights infringed upon by military tactics."
Steve Ingley, executive director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, which advocates for the use of aviation in public safety missions, said it was necessary for police to respond quickly to the civil liberties concerns outlined in proposed legislation and by civil rights advocates.
"This (drone use) is a good potential tool for law enforcement," Ingley said. "... But it's important for people to know that this is not the predator. This is very different."
Ben Gielow, general counsel of Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents manufacturers, said the aircraft used by police would be miniature counterparts to the drones used by the military and CIA.
The police drones, he said, would likely weigh as little as five pounds and could represent a more affordable aviation option at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000, rather than a $3 million helicopter.
"There is still a lot of education that needs to take place to determine how this can be used domestically," Gielow said.