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Denver Police and Fire Departments Split on Use of Drones

DPD shelved its unmanned aerial vehicle program over invasion of privacy concerns, while the DFD is steadily moving forward with its drone implementation.

DENVER — Police and fire officials here have differing views about the efficacy of using drones for crime-fighting and life-safety deployments.

Despite purchasing a drone recently for nearly $3,000, the Denver Police Department scrapped its plan for now to use the device for photographing crime scenes over concerns about potential invasion of privacy and encroachment on civil liberties.

Meanwhile, the Denver Fire Department is going forward with its drone implementation with the intent to assess structure fires, analyze hazardous spills and provide an aerial view to first responders on the ground attempting to find and rescue people.

The DFD solicited bids in July to purchase an Aeryon SkyRanger drone and accessories, including two camera lenses, the Denver Post reported.

“It will give us the opportunity to see the scene from five different sides, with the four we normally see on the ground and the one from above,” Greg Pixley, a Denver fire spokesman, told the newspaper.

The fire department has yet to choose a vendor, but the SkyRanger model sold to fire and police departments — specifically designed for the wear and tear of law enforcement usage — typically costs between $30,000 and $50,000, depending on features such as accessories and battery power, a marketing director for Aeryon told the newspaper.

While the DFD is studying bids, it is assessing a policy for how a drone would be used, Pixley said. For example, the department does not yet know the length of time it will store the video footage collected by its drone, or how and when footage will be released to the public.

It’s not just illegal surveillance and privacy encroachment that concerns critics of drones in law enforcement, as the Denver Post reported, but the potential of armed police drones capable of firing at suspects. For Denise Maes, the public policy director of Colorado’s ACLU chapter, there’s no question that the police is a more warranted target of suspicion than firefighters using drones to more efficiently put out fires.

“If it’s used for surveillance, it has to be used the same way as boots on the ground would be used,” Maes told the newspaper. “Do you have a warrant? Do you have probable cause?”

Executive Director of County Sheriffs of Colorado Chris Johnson, meanwhile, is adamant that drones pose no substantial threat to civilians living within their legal means. Drones, he claims, aren’t capable of invading the privacy of people’s homes.

Law enforcement is aware of the legal issues and follows the law, Johnson maintains.

“Police don’t use them to peer into people’s windows,” he said. “People who commit crimes have more to fear from wiretaps than they do a drone, to be honest. Drones can’t see through roofs.”

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