St. Paul is poised to join the dozens of law enforcement agencies across Minnesota using drones to help respond to certain emergency situations.
Police Cmdr. Ryan Murphy presented the department's draft policy for drone use to the City Council during a public hearing Wednesday morning, drawing a handful of concerns from council members and residents about police accountability and privacy.
Murphy described a variety of scenarios in which police could deploy drones, including searches for missing persons or suspects, severe weather responses and crime scene reconstructions.
According to the draft policy, the technology "will significantly reduce the exposure of responders to life and safety risks and ultimately better protect the community."
Drone use is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the state, which requires law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants for surveillance.
Rich Neumeister, a longtime advocate for open records and privacy in Minnesota, said that although state law bans random surveillance, there are broad exceptions to the search warrant requirement.
"Residents of St. Paul should be able to live in freedom from surveillance that is not justified," he said in written testimony to the council. "The state statute and the proposed policy does not provide robust protection against surveillance techniques enhanced by technology."
Council members also raised concerns about racial profiling and asked police to solicit more community feedback on the drone policy.
In addition, the Macalester-Groveland Community Council said in a letter to the City Council that its members wanted more information about the drone program and the potential need for a citizens advisory group.
The Police Department has already spent $35,358 on five drones and associated equipment, but they will not be operational until officers are trained to use them, police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster said.
One is a large model that cost $14,000; two are medium-sized and cost $4,500; and two are small, $400 drones, Ernster said. The Police Department expects to add seven more drones to its fleet.
Police budgeted $93,420 for the drone program this year using money from the department's general fund, Ernster said. He said that while police don't know what the program's annual budget will be, this year's spending will cover many one-time startup costs.
"It seems like we are giving [the Police Department] a free pass to continue buying more drones, and I feel that what's missing, really, is the voices of our community," Council Member Nelsie Yang said.
According to the draft policy, drone use would have to be approved by a supervisor, and the department would create a police report for each deployment. The drones cannot be equipped with weapons or facial recognition technology.
Officials noted that other law enforcement agencies, including the Minnesota State Patrol and the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, are already using drones in St. Paul.
"I do think we always have to proceed with caution, but recognize that there's a benefit that gets us to the goals that we've stated many times: spending less, less use of force, less violence, less harm to our community," Council President Amy Brendmoen said.
The Police Department is accepting feedback on its proposed policy at stpaul.gov/uas.