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Why the Minneapolis Police Department wants drones to help police the streets

Many residents are concerned about the equipment’s potential for abuse and whether a department seen by many as unaccountable should have access to that type of technology.

A group of demonstrators gathered at George Floyd Square on June 1, 2020, in an image taken with a drone.
A group of demonstrators gathered at George Floyd Square on June 1, 2020, in an image taken with a drone.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Minneapolis Police Department is developing a plan to add unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to its law enforcement strategy.

Police and some proponents of the new equipment say it’ll help MPD bolster its law enforcement capabilities as the department tries to deal with a sustained crime wave amid staffing shortages. 

“We’re not going to see the numbers (of officers) we used to see,” said Cedric Alexander, the commissioner of the new Minneapolis Office of Community Safety, on a Humphrey School of Public Affairs panel last month, suggesting the department needs to find other ways to police the city. 

But many residents are concerned about the equipment’s potential for abuse – such as their use for surveillance and violation of privacy rights that could follow – and whether a department seen by many as unaccountable should have access to that type of technology. 

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Drone uses

In a presentation to Minneapolis City Council public health and safety committee members late last month, MPD Commander Jonathon Kingsbury said the department plans to use drones to “enhance response to public safety emergencies and needs.” That includes crime scene and accident reconstruction, search and rescue, and other active emergency situations.

As of the end of August, Minneapolis had 604 sworn officers, but that number drops to 571 when you subtract 33 officers on a continuous leave of 78 hours (roughly two weeks) or more, according to data from the city.

Amid staffing issues, using drones, “we can cover a lot of area quickly in search of a lost child, vulnerable adult or even a suspect much more so than officers on foot or in squad cars,”  Kingsbury said. 

He said the UAVs can be sent into places officers can’t normally reach, like the tops of some buildings, as well as situations that could put an officer’s life in danger. A drone can much more quickly help police determine the size and scope of a natural disaster like a flash flood, for example.

A 2020 law requires all law enforcement agencies statewide to report when they deployed drones without a search warrant, the reason for deploying the equipment, how many times and how much it cost.

Minnesota law enforcement agencies used drones without a search warrant more than 2,200 times in 2021, according to a legislative report by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension from earlier this summer that looked at drone usage by public safety agencies statewide. That number was up more than 93% compared to 2020.

Despite justification for the equipment being for use in emergency situations, nearly half of those uses (1,042) were “over a public area for officer training or public relations purposes.” UAVs were used “during or in the aftermath of an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person” about 23% of the time (512).

Kingsbury emphasized that the program wouldn’t be used for random or continuous surveillance of an individual or group. Any targeted surveillance would require a search warrant signed by a judge. 

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The proposed policy would ban MPD from using the drones to harass or intimidate, collect data on protests and demonstrations or for random surveillance of residents who aren’t involved in a criminal investigation. It would also prevent the department from equipping the drones with weapons (lethal and less-lethal) or facial recognition technology, and from using facial recognition on any footage captured by a drone. 

Kingsbury told council members that the department plans to finalize the policy in the next few weeks before purchasing the equipment in the next month or two. The estimated cost of the drones — which will come out of the MPD general fund — will be between $30,000 and $40,000, he said, though it was unclear how many individual devices that amount would pay for. 

Between six and 10 officers within the department will take part in training to receive a pilot’s license to operate the drones, and only “the commander of special operations, or the deputy chief, or above” will be able to authorize their use, Kingsbury said.

A 2020 law requires all law enforcement agencies statewide to report when they deployed drones without a search warrant, the reason for deploying the equipment, how many times and how much it cost.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
A 2020 law requires all law enforcement agencies statewide to report when they deployed drones without a search warrant, the reason for deploying the equipment, how many times and how much it cost.

Community concerns

Council members heard testimony from nearly two dozen Minneapolis residents during a public comment session on the drones

Proponents of the department’s use of the drones argued they could limit the potential for interactions between police and civilians that could turn ugly. For example, some drones have speakers that police could use to communicate with people in distress while keeping their distance.

The equipment could also be used to bolster the department’s response to crime as it continues to struggle with staffing shortages. 

Joe Tamburino, a criminal defense attorney who lives downtown, said the drones could help reinforce police response to increased criminal activity citywide. He cited July 4, when police were stretched thin struggling to handle multiple incidents happening downtown that included shootings and people throwing fireworks in people’s apartments.

“Sometimes police can’t get to a situation in an emergency as fast as a drone can,” he told council members. “Now if there was a drone that was able to do that, it could’ve done surveillance. It could’ve seen what vehicles are being used. It could get license plates and we could’ve known what was happening.”

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Despite some support, the response to the proposed policy was overwhelmingly negative. 

Residents expressed concerns about the potential for privacy and civil rights violations, and worried the proposed policy was too vague, allowing officers to exploit loopholes and use the technology in more situations than outlined.

Others cited a report from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights earlier this year that found the department had engaged in a pattern or practice of racial discrimination in its policing over a decade. The report describes police allegedly using covert social media accounts to surveil Black activists, organizations and elected officials.

Many expressed doubt that the department would hold itself accountable should they violate the proposed policy, and therefore shouldn’t have access to the equipment funded by taxpayers.

“The last thing we need is to exacerbate the already strained relations between MPD and the citizens of Minneapolis by introducing technology that carries vast potential for abuse, with little to no real meaningful public input or oversight,” Mill District resident Susan Van Pelt told council members. 

Larger concerns

MPD hasn’t yet acquired the equipment, but Munira Mohamed of Safety Not Surveillance, a coalition of a dozen Twin Cities groups, said in an interview that the use of surveillance cameras or drones as a solution for staffing issues poses the danger that law enforcement agencies may turn to these options more often going forward.

Mohamed said the stakes are too high for institutions that deal with crime and civil liberties to rely on technology in many situations. Facial recognition algorithms tend to be rife with racial bias, and law enforcement’s use of that technology could worsen racial discrimination in policing, she said.

“You have all of this new technology and new algorithms and new ways of surveilling people and tracking people’s data, but you need some kind of human controls, you need some kind of human element that’s able to make the decision that we want to protect people’s civil rights,” she said. “A computer shouldn’t be making any kind of decision when it comes to life and death circumstances like the criminal justice system or in law enforcement.”