[Rushtalk] St. Louis police chief wants drones to monitor city from the sky

Carl Spitzer winblows at lavabit.com
Wed Jul 10 09:15:12 MDT 2013

St. Louis police chief wants drones to monitor city from the sky
June 23, 2013 12:30 am  •  By Christine Byers

ST. LOUIS • In Chief Sam Dotson’s vision of modern policing, a drone
would circle Busch Stadium to watch for terrorists, or silently pursue a
criminal who thought the chase was over when the officer in the car
behind him turned off its red lights and siren.

And Dotson is working to make it happen.

“Criminals believe, and with some truth, that if they flee from police
officers, officers will not pursue and they will ultimately elude
capture,” Dotson wrote in a letter to the Federal Aviation
Administration. It was a preliminary step toward seeking approval for
unmanned — and unarmed — flight.

“If we are serious about crime reduction strategies, we must look to new
technologies which help keep officers and the public safe and apprehend
criminals,” he said in the March 25 correspondence.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose assent is required, also wrote to
the FAA to offer “enthusiastic support.” She declined to elaborate,
saying through a spokeswoman: “The letter speaks for itself.”

Dotson said he would seek donations and grants to pay for the miniature
airplanes, which run from $60,000 to $300,000 each — pricey, but still
cheaper and safer than a helicopter.

Privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union — already
grappling with recent news that the FBI has been selectively using
drones for surveillance over U.S. soil — are balking at word of Dotson’s
contact with the FAA.

“This is a significant expansion of government surveillance,” complained
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Our
laws have not kept up with our privacy rights. Our Fourth Amendment
privacy rights aren’t safe from unreasonable search and seizure when
you’re looking at drones.”

Dotson said drones are not capable of anything that helicopters don’t
already do — or that existing laws don’t already protect.

“This isn’t Big Brother, this is a decision to make everyone in the
community safer,” he insisted.

St. Louis is hardly the first police department interested in the

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, another privacy advocate, discovered
through Freedom of Information requests late last year that dozens of
police agencies submitted FAA applications.

In some cases, agencies shelved their programs because of public
pressure before even getting off the ground. In Seattle, the mayor
ordered the police department to return the devices because of public

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said he thinks drones could provide a safer
way to pursue fugitives.

“We’re proceeding in a very cautious way,” he said in an interview a few
days ago. “First we must look at the technology and if we decide to use
the technology, to what extent it will be used.”

The kind of capabilities Dotson advocates could be years away, said Kurt
Frisz, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, which
represents police helicopter pilots.

It is one of several groups working with the FAA to develop rules for
domestic use of drones that Congress mandated by the end of next year.
So far, the FAA has granted permission only to about a half-dozen police
departments, mainly in rural areas where drones would not interfere with

Police account for only about 5 percent of drone applicants, who include
businesses, universities and news media. The FAA requires that a
civilian drone remain within sight of its operator, and fly no higher
than 400 feet above ground.

Equipment available within those parameters uses either a battery or
small gasoline engine, capable of no more than an hour of flight at a
time, Frisz said.

Military drones can remain aloft for 36 hours at a time and can cost
hundreds of millions of dollars and require ground crews of hundreds of
people, he noted.

Dotson believes it’s only a matter of time before drones can be
pre-programmed to cruise for hours and lock on to fleeing vehicles.
Since late February, 290 drivers have fled from St. Louis officers and
in May the average was two a day, according to the department.

“The automobile didn’t go from the Model T to a Porsche, there were many
incremental steps along the way,” Dotson said.


While Congress mandated safety rules for domestic drones, no agency is
assigned to privacy issues. A patchwork of state regulations is
emerging, and some states have prohibited drones all together.

A bill awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature in Illinois would prohibit
police from deploying drones without warrants — except in critical
situations — or using photos from them in court. The legislation also
would forbid drones from being equipped with weapons.

In April, the Missouri House passed a bill to make the state a “no drone
zone,” but it failed in the Senate.

The law would have banned warrantless surveillance via manned or
unmanned aircraft, and required journalists to seek permission from
property owners before using unmanned aircraft. It also would have
required private organizations or state agencies to seek permission for
any airborne surveillance.

That proposal sent police into panic mode, fearing that helicopters
could be grounded, said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, who also is
business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

“It was a nonsolution to a nonproblem,” Roorda said. “But the discussion
is far from over.”

Frisz hopes legislators wait for the FAA regulations before considering
any more drone laws. He said 39 states have proposed anti-drone

“A lot of this legislation is a knee-jerk reaction to drone hysteria,”
he said. “Let’s see what regulations are going to be before we make laws
about something we can’t even do yet.”

Frisz, who also is a St. Louis County police captain, helped craft the
Metro Air Support helicopter partnership among his department, the city
and St. Charles County. He said he sees drones (he prefers to call them
unmanned aerial vehicles) as an expansion of public safety, not a threat
to helicopters.

Drones cannot rescue people or deploy officers into scenes, like
helicopters. The FAA does not allow drones to fly at night. They are
more at the mercy of weather. And, the agency requires each to have an
operator and spotter, both with the same credentials.

There also are safety concerns about what happens to people below if
radio interference interrupts the controls, or the drone otherwise
crashes. For now, their weight is limited to four pounds.

“It’s very attractive to chiefs who want this bright, shiny new object,
but at the same time you need to look at what you can do and what can’t
you do,” Frisz said.

His chief, Tim Fitch, said he never attends a police conference without
a company pitching its latest drone technology. So far, Fitch is not

“We’re not going to be out in front on this one,” he said. “But it’s
certainly something we’re going to keep an eye on.”


The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado was one of the first to get
FAA approval, and started using drones in 2009, said Benjamin Miller,
its program manager.

Private companies provided two battery-operated drones for free that he
said otherwise would have cost about $50,000 combined. He said they cost
about $25 an hour to operate. (Frisz said a helicopter costs about $250
an hour.) One of Mesa County’s drones can fly for about 15 minutes, the
other about an hour. Each can fit in a backpack.

Miller said there seems like a lot of fuss for not a lot of technology.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to pull a radio-controlled toy out
of a box that can fly for 15 minutes, sometimes not even above the
trees,” Miller said. “I found myself thinking, ‘Why in the world am I
working with FAA for this?’”

So far, Mesa County has used drones to photograph and create
three-dimensional models of crimes scenes, and help search for missing

Miller said the fire department and public works division also use them.

The community used to spend about $10,000 on a private plane to conduct
an annual government-mandated aerial survey of a landfill. “We did it in
about two hours for $50,” Miller said. “We’re now dreaming beyond the
stuff we dreamt of before.”

Miller is considering equipping a drone to act as a temporary radio
relay tower in rural areas or where regular towers have been destroyed.

“That’s huge when you think of Oklahoma,” he said. “Where a tornado
knocks down all of the equipment, I can have an antenna in the air
within 15 minutes.”

Privacy concerns have been raised and addressed, he said. He has spoken
to police groups around the country and determined that secrecy, or the
perception of it, can ground a program.

“We’ve been open and transparent about it from the beginning,” Miller
said. “The resistance is gone, but every now and then, we get a new
community member come in and ask about it with the sheriff. They come in
with the expectation that we’re hiding a Predator drone that we got from
the military that’s armed with missiles hiding in a hangar. But we’re so
far away from that, it’s just crazy.”

Dotson said he is open to a public discussion here.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Does the solution make sense?’” he said.
“And if it does, we should use it and not fall to political pressure.

“We all know technology helps makes life better, and I don’t think I
would be doing my job if I wasn’t pushing this conversation.”

Christine Byers is a crime reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Follow her on Twitter. 

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