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Jeannette police might join growing number of departments using drones

Renatta Signorini
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In this June 11, 2015, file photo, a hexacopter drone is flown during a drone demonstration in Cordova, Md.

Jeannette Police Department could have eyes in the sky.

Chief Shannon Binda wants to purchase a drone — or an unmanned aircraft system — for the department’s use.

“I just think it’s a huge asset for us,” he said.

Binda planned to discuss the matter Monday with city council, which would have to approve the purchase.

“We want to look into it a bit over the next month so we can be sure how to best utilize the drone, how it can be an asset to the community and to the department,” city manager Michael Nestico said.

Forty-three states have passed either legislation or resolutions, and lawmakers in other states are considering measures, to govern how police and other agencies use the technology that has been gaining in popularity over the past several years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania does not have a specific law governing the use of such aircraft by police. There are federal regulations as to how they can be used and the training needed to operate one.

There aren’t many departments in Pennsylvania outfitted with the technology, said Tom Gross, executive director of the PA Chiefs of Police Association. However, the devices are being marketed to police, and interest may increase, he said.

“There are police departments … that have actually obtained them and others that are considering,” Gross said. “I think that it will be an area that … is ripe for expansion.”

Northern Regional Police Department in Allegheny County started using drones two years ago. Allegheny County Police have found several uses for one issued by the district attorney in February, Detective Mike Feeney said.

The device assisted in the search for two kayakers in May after a fatal accident at Dashields Locks and Dam on the Ohio River, Feeney said. It was deployed in May to aid the search for a missing 10-year-old girl in Stowe Township and has been helpful in training exercises with the SWAT team, he said.

“Those are things that you can never do with people,” Feeney said. “It’s a pretty effective tool.”

In May 2016, there were 250 non-hobby drones registered in the state and 8,000 in the country, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

If Binda secures Jeannette council’s approval, he hopes to use the aircraft to track missing or lost people or suspects fleeing on foot and for routine safety surveillance during events with large crowds, such as high school football games or a parade. The device could come in handy for getting an aerial view of a crime scene, he said.

Feeney manned the Allegheny County fire marshal’s drone to get aerial shots while investigating a vehicle crash at Thanksgiving that killed a family of three following a police chase on Route 30 in North Versailles.

“No question they have uses in those instances,” Gross said. “The thing is to make sure there are no constitutional issues.”

Departments should consider the privacy rights of citizens when taking crime fighting to the sky, Gross said.

“Like any technology used by law enforcement, drones can be abused without strong policies to govern their use. When police operate drones, they must be guided by specific policies,” said ACLU of Pennsylvania spokesman Andy Hoover.

“They should only be used in conjunction with a warrant issued by a court or in an emergency, images captured should only be retained when there is reasonable suspicion that they’re connected to a crime or are part of an ongoing investigation, and domestic drones should never be weaponized,” Hoover said. “These policies are best codified by the people’s representatives, not by police departments, and their usage should be regularly audited. Without strict guidelines, law enforcement use of drones is prone to abuse and could bring us closer to a surveillance society where our every move is tracked, stored and logged by the government.”

Some states, including Virginia and Florida, have enacted rules that require police to obtain a warrant to track a person. Certain emergency exceptions are permitted.

Those are the types of situations city officials want to examine before committing to a purchase, Nestico said.

“There are certain legalities to it,” he said. “Clearly, it can’t be used to invade someone’s privacy.”

“We want to make sure that we contemplate all privacy rights for our citizens while still being able to utilize it within the department,” he said.

Binda said he plans to put a recent donation to the department toward the proposed purchase. He estimates it could cost $5,000 to $6,000.

The device would be outfitted with infrared technology. Two officers would be trained and registered with the Federal Aviation Administration to operate it, he said. If put into use during a police incident, an officer on the ground would control the device and see a video feed on a smartphone or tablet. Binda was not aware of any other Westmoreland County departments using the technology.

The state Game Commission uses drones mainly for educational photos and videos, as do other municipal and county agencies in Pennsylvania, according to a January report from the Joint State Government Commission.

State police do not have the devices, a spokesman said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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