The Montgomery County Council is likely to approve the purchase of two police department drones after the Public Safety and Government Operations committees voted unanimously to greenlight a new program after a work session Wednesday. Drones will be deployed after a 911 call if the dispatcher and drone pilot believe there is a use for the drone to respond. Once the drone arrives on the scene, the pilot can assess if threats are credible, if more emergency responders are needed, and other details that could help expedite emergency response.
The issue will come before the County Council for a full vote in November, but has not been officially scheduled yet.
The proposed Drone As First Responder program would involve two drones–one for the downtown Silver Spring area and one for the downtown Wheaton area–that can be sent to crime scenes to assess the area before officers arrive. The program will cost $350,000.
“This will ultimately save lives,” Earl Stoddard, director of the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security department, said in an interview. “It will reduce unnecessary police conduct.”
According to county legislative analyst Susan Farag, the two locations were chosen by Montgomery County Police Department based on staffing and crime trend analyses in those areas.
The drones will not have face recognition technology and will not be permitted for surveillance under the legislation, including of “First Amendment protected events” unless there is an immediate safety concern or threat, Stoddard said.
To help gain familiarity with the program and learn how to adapt it for the county, MCPD members traveled to Chula Vista, California to learn about their program. Chula Vista was one of the first and most well-known Drone as First Responder programs.
The program has faced some skepticism from the public who are concerned this will give police a loophole for unnecessary surveillance.
“The use of drones by law enforcement implicates significant policy interests, and can be used in a number of harmful ways, particularly against communities of color,” said Paul Holmes, who testified on behalf of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition during a public hearing Tuesday.
Stoddard said he understands why people may be skeptical.
“People have asked ‘is it going to be looking in my window, seeing me get into the shower?’ And those are understandable concerns,” Stoddard said. “But the drone will be flying 200-400 feet in the air, with the camera facing straight forward.”
Councilmembers reiterated on Wednesday that the legislation will not allow a drone to be sent out for minor complaints.
“If somebody calls for a noise complaint, we’re not sending a drone out,” Stewart said.
Officials said one of the goals is to limit interactions between the public and the police.
“This technology is going to help prevent some unnecessary contacts and investigative inquiries that may not be warranted,” said Captain Jason Cokinos, director of the Montgomery County Police Department special operations division, at the Wednesday work session. “We want to be the least intrusive to the public. We only want to focus on what we need to focus on, or the crime or the call.”
Stoddard said the program will also link with the county’s Police Accountability Board, which would address any instance of an officer using a drone inappropriately.
Stewart said she had reservations when the program was introduced during budget deliberations in April, and asked for the item to be moved to a separate discussion. Stewart’s district includes downtown Silver Spring, one of the targeted areas. But now, she sees the benefits and supports the pilot program.
“This helps evaluate the scene and provide information to the responding officers, and it has been shown in other areas that this helps to allow for de-escalation situations and improve decision making by responding officers,” Stewart said in an interview.
At the committee work session on Wednesday, Councilmember and Public Safety Committee Chair Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3) said while this won’t alleviate police staffing shortages in the county, he believes it will help the department be more strategic in their operations.
“This in no way is going to take away from your very, very real concern about staffing. But this is about efficiency. And we probably should have been doing this years ago. I mean, they probably didn’t have this years ago,” Katz said with a laugh. “But now that we know we can be doing this, we should be doing this.”
The county already has a decentralized drone program, which responds in limited cases allowed under law. Cokinos said the department has used it to monitor traffic backups, aid in search and rescue, and monitor hostage situations and suicide threats.
Stoddard said that the existing drone has limited officer interactions with the public. For example, Stoddard said, the department has used the drone to monitor people having severe mental health crises and threatening to jump off buildings, while a mental health worker talks to them on the phone. Stoddard said this type of operation has been successful in getting people experiencing crises the help they need without interacting with law enforcement.
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