For years, law-enforcement agencies, including several in the Seattle area, have used helicopters and airplanes for search-and-rescue missions, manhunts, SWAT-team operations, traffic control and car chases. But the Seattle Police Department's plan to use drone aircraft has come under fire by some who fear loss of privacy.

Share story

For years, law-enforcement agencies, including several in the Seattle area, have used helicopters and airplanes for search-and-rescue missions, manhunts, SWAT-team operations, traffic control and car chases.

So why have plans by Seattle police and other enforcement agencies to deploy unmanned drones drawn such intense fire?

The vocal opposition against the drones came into sharp focus two weeks ago during a public meeting in Seattle when members of the Seattle Police Department were shouted down with chants of “No drones!”

In California, plans by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to deploy drones were met last month with a news conference on the steps of Oakland City Hall where several groups raised privacy concerns.

Police, privacy-rights experts and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has strong concerns about drones, say the technology is not going away. The question is how to craft thoughtful laws that protect privacy, according to the ACLU of Washington.

“How can they (law enforcement) shepherd us into an age when we have drones if they don’t deal with people’s privacy fears?” said Ryan Calo, a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Law who has written on the issue of drones and privacy.

Long used by the military for surveillance and combat missions, drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs — offer law-enforcement agencies the potential to deploy an eye-in-the-sky at a relatively low cost.

In February, President Obama signed legislation passed by Congress that compelled the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to plan for the safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace by 2015. The Seattle Police Department was among dozens of law-enforcement units, academic institutions and other agencies that were given FAA approval to deploy drones.

What’s envisioned

Police Department officials have said their plans for drones include providing camera images in homicide and traffic investigations; search-and-rescue operations; and cases involving hazardous materials, barricaded people and natural disasters.

Seattle police Lt. Greg Sackman said the FAA specifically prohibits civilian UAVs from carrying weapons systems.

In addition, FAA guidelines say police drones cannot be flown at night, near people or over crowds. FAA requirements also state that drones must be flown below 400 feet and must remain within eyesight of an operator as well as an observer at all times.

But the ACLU has said a review of existing laws and policies shows they are inadequate to safeguard citizen privacy.

Calo said that while drones do not provide more “opportunity for mischief” or misuse than, say, fusion centers where data is collected and shared, they do provoke more fear.

“We associate drones with the theater of war, and we can picture the inscrutable robot flying over the city,” Calo said. “It’s very evocative, and it could provide a real window for us to examine the balance between personal privacy and emerging technology.”

In an article for the Stanford Law Review, Calo wrote that the gut-level fear sparked by drones could be just the “visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.”

Calo, in a phone interview, said the best protections for people would come from legislation at all levels of government. He said Congress should pass laws that direct the FAA to require applicants to say precisely how the drones will be used. In cases where there is a violation, “the FAA could hold them accountable by yanking their license,” he said.

Speaking before an August gathering of drone manufacturers in Las Vegas, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency has repeatedly reached out for public input to address worries about how drones will be used, according to the Los Angeles Times. So, while fine-tuning the technology is important, Huerta said, “building human consensus … is an equally important task and unbelievably complicated,” according to the newspaper.

While Seattle police have received FAA approval to train drone operators, the department is not cleared by the federal agency to fly drones on missions. Several other law-enforcement agencies, however, do have FAA permission to deploy drones in police work.

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado to date has flown more than 35 missions and primarily has used its unmanned aerial vehicle to reconstruct crime scenes and to assist in search-and-rescue missions, according to the program’s director, Ben Miller.

At the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida, drones are being used to provide information to tactical and SWAT teams in situations where the use of piloted aircraft “could pose a threat or risk to officers in the air,” Sgt. Andrew Cohen said.

Policy vs. ordinance

The Seattle Police Department has drafted guidelines for when and how its drones will be used. It states that unmanned aerial systems would not be used to “conduct random surveillance activities.”

However, the draft also leaves open the possibility that the drones will be deployed in other circumstances as well, which causes concern for the ACLU of Washington.

Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, said the Police Department’s proposed policy is “too broad. They have a list of different emergencies and then a catchall phrase saying the drones can also be used in other situations if they get permission.”

Calo said the drones could be susceptible to “mission creep,” in which the use of the technology could deviate from the intended use. Metal detectors, for example, originally were used in high-security areas like airports but are now accepted at schools, he said.

Shaw said city leaders have an opportunity to pass an ordinance that would establish strict, immutable laws about how and when the police department is authorized to use drones.

“So long as it is a policy, it can be changed. An ordinance cannot be changed at will and is the only way we can be sure there is meaningful input,” she has said.

Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the department plans to hold several other public hearings to explain the program. He said the department’s policy on the use of drones could be altered by the feedback.

After that, the department’s policy will be submitted to the City Council’s committee on Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology, possibly in December.

The committee could approve the department’s policy or recommend that the full City Council pass ordinances to regulate the department’s use of drones.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.