The Montgomery County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the Drone As First Responder pilot program, which will fund drones to assist the Montgomery County Police Department in emergency response before officers arrive on the scene.
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.
“This is not surveillance. This is about reducing the response of police and using technology in the right way, which in my view is a good thing,” said councilmember Natali Fani-Gonzalez (D-Dist. 6). “I look forward to seeing this program implemented in my district.”
The Drone As First Responder program will 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.
According to county legislative analyst Susan Farag, the two locations were chosen by Montgomery County Police Department based on staffing and crime trend analysis 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, according to Earl Stoddard, director of the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security department.
“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 an Oct. 17 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.”
The program was first introduced during the fiscal 2024 budget process in the spring, but councilmembers asked the police department to do more outreach and public engagement on the program before the council brought it to a vote for a supplemental appropriation. In the months following, the council held multiple work sessions to discuss the legislation, and the police department held two public engagement sessions for members of the community.
“This has been an exceptional level of community input and council and police department and executive branch coordination and collaboration. I hope that it’s a model for us moving forward. It’s very much appreciated,” Council Vice President Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1) said.
The appropriation was recommended by the council Public Safety and Government Operations committees at an Oct. 18 work session, and the committees worked to streamline the language to ensure the technology won’t be misused for surveillance.
“We wanted to make sure that they were stated clearly in the appropriations to ensure civil liberties, address people’s concerns about transparency, privacy and accountability,” councilmember Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4) said.
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. 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, according to Stoddard. Stoddard said this type of operation has been successful in getting people experiencing crises the help they need without interacting with law enforcement.