The Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) hosted community events in Silver Spring on Sept. 6 and Wheaton on Tuesday to discuss its proposed “Drone as First Responder” (DFR) Program.
The program will use drones to “fly to a call for service and arrive prior to, or in conjunction with, first responders on the ground,” and would be used to “evaluate the scene and circumstances before officers arrive and while an event is ongoing,” police said in their presentation on Sept. 6.
At the Silver Spring meeting, MCPD Captain and Director of the Special Operations Division Jason Cokinos said they aim to launch this as a pilot program first, hoping to get it off the ground by October. That depends on when the County Council approves appropriations for the program, he said.
“We’re doing a lot of behind-the-scenes things so that if we are granted the funding, we can go live pretty quick,” Cokinos said.
The pilot program will include two drones stationed somewhere in the Silver Spring and Wheaton areas, and if the program is successful, they hope to expand the drones to the rest of the county, Cokinos said.
For the initial run, the drones will be in action for eight months, so that evaluation would be made around June 2024, he said.
The drones weigh about 20 pounds, can fly up to 51 mph and can travel for about 55 minutes before it runs out of battery, Cokinos said.
One of the things that police hope to accomplish with these drones is to decrease incidents of police violence.
“That drone is going to be able to do is provide information to officers as they’re responding, which can help with better decision making,” Cokinos said. It can help with an appropriate response at the escalated response.”
If someone calls 911 reporting that someone has a gun, police can send the drone and confirm it is actually a gun. If the drone arrives and shows that the object is not actually a gun, police can send in fewer officers and they do not need to come in with guns out and ready, Cokinos explained.
Carlean Ponder, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, said that she was skeptical.
“You frame this as a tool to do officer de-escalation and reduce contact with people, but when I think about some of the incidents that occurred here, like with Robert White, who was walking down the street when he was encountered and shot and killed by a police officer. I don’t know how this would have helped in that situation because it was officer identification, escalation and profiling.”
Ponder also referenced the death of Ryan LeRoux in August 2022.
“With Ryan Leroux, there was a gun in the car on the passenger’s side when he was at the Gaithersburg McDonald’s, and that was already known,” Ponder said. “And we saw a swarm of officers surrounding him. I think 24 bullets were fired at this young man.”
Cokinos addressed the June 2018 death of White, who suffered from mental health issues.
“If I’m already watching an individual with the drone, I can say: this person appears to be having a mental health issue. Let’s slow this down. Let’s get additional resources and let’s get the ambulance staged,” Cokinos said. “We can make better decisions about how we make contact with them.”
Concerning Leroux’s death where he had a gun with him in a vehicle, Cokinos said the drones could help with better resolutions.
“With these drones, I don’t need to visually take a look and put myself in a situation that could escalate it,” he said. “I can stay back in a way and watch with the drone and then use other better training that we’ve been enhancing and better techniques.”
Essentially, he said police can communicate with someone remotely, over a loudspeaker, over the phone, etc. and then watch them remotely through the drone.
Another way drones can help improve police accountability and improve de-escalation: drone footage can be used as evidence, and like body-worn camera footage, it will be released to the public, Cokinos said.
Cokinos also addressed community concerns he heard and new ones presented at the Silver Spring meeting such as drones
filming people in such an invasive way that it invades their privacy.
Cokinos said that police want to respect the community’s privacy and do not want people to feel like they’re being watched, so he said they have found a solution for that.
“When that drone takes off, that camera is going to be pointed upward towards the sky as we’re flying,” Cokinos said. “When we get into the area of the emergency, the pilot will turn the camera down to be able to observe the emergency.”
He also addressed concerns about whether the drones could recognize people’s faces.
“This drone technology does not interface with facial recognition,” Cokinos said. “We’re not using the drone program to videotape people’s faces and upload it into any type of databases in that fashion.”
Cokinos added that MCPD is modeling its program after the Chula Vista Police Department’s drone program in California, which was launched in 2017.
“We traveled to California, and we saw firsthand how this program works,” Cokinos said.
A resident expressed a concern that the drones may not be able to fly in the rain and still do their job.
“If there’s inclement weather, just like a helicopter or other aviation, we may be temporarily grounded,” Cokinos said.
Police officers will be flying the drones, Cokinos said. One of the drone pilots, Detective Michael Polcsa, explained that people do not need to worry about officers making errors or causing damage while flying the drones.
“The drones that we use have software inside of them to control the GPS and control their height. They have sensors on the front, the back and the bottom to make sure that you don’t crash into anything,” Polcsa said.
He said that they were so straightforward that: “I could probably spend about 30 minutes with anybody in this room and be able to get you to put the drone up down and not crash in anything as long as we’re not in a confined environment.”
After the Tuesday meeting in Wheaton, Montgomery County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard posted on social media, explaining the importance of the continued discussions the police department is having with citizens.