We're getting drones--but balancing benefits and privacy lead concerns


By Patsy Nicosia

The Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office is getting a couple of drones—something that will be flown in partnership with the Fire Coordinator’s Office for use in things like search and rescue, accident reconstruction and investigations.
But first, the Sheriff’s Office needs a policy detailing how to use the drones while making sure privacy issues are addressed.
Sergeant Zach Reinhart and Deputy Dan Smith brought a copy of their draft drone policy to the first meeting of the Citizens Collaborative Committee Monday.
Lois Goblet was named to chair the effort, created after the state-mandated review of law enforcement policies wrapped up in March as a way to continue “that transparency and get that trust out in the community,” she said.
They got straight to work.
The drones will be funded by a federal grant.
Training will be a critical piece of making them effective, Sheriff Ron Stevens said; the time for that as well as the time needed to develop a policy, for paperwork, and to take delivery of the drones means they’re not expected to be up and running until April 2022.
Deputy Smith, who’s already licensed by the FAA to operate drones, will be the chief pilot and he hopes to train and certify a couple of other deputies to operate them as well, he said.
“If they’re not used properly, they might be used improperly and faulty to a case,” Sheriff Stevens said, as he and deputies talked about when they’d be called in.
One of the most obvious uses of the drones, they said, would be for search and rescue.
For example, the search for a missing Delaware County hiker in May took three hours.
A drone, deputies said, could have covered that same terrain in 20 minutes.
Along the same lines, the drones could be called in for things like train derailments or fires or bridge inspections or for accident reconstruction—something deputies said the State Police can no longer come out and do.
Where things start to get sticky is when they’re used for criminal surveillance.
“I’d like to maximize the benefits, balanced with privacy,” said CCC member Ray Richards.
Under the draft policy, probable cause warrants or the “consent of an appropriate party,” would be required “where there are specific…grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific instance of wrongdoing or if the drone will intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy…”
The drones won’t be flown for “general surveillance,” deputies said and pointed to how the City of Troy used drones during protests last summer: not to identify specific protestors, but to get ahead of the crowd and shut down roads as it moved through the city.
The draft drone policy expands on the one offered by Lexipol, the Texas-based company that helps police and others develop a wide range of policies, adding in pieces that address privacy concerns that come from the American Civil Liberties Union, Sergeant Reinharts said.
Answering questions from the CCC, deputies said training exercises would probably be conducted over county-owned properties and neighbors would be notified.
And if they stumbled upon illegal activities while using the drones for other purposes?
“We’d have to stop and get a search warrant,” Deputy Smith said.
“This is just a new technology,” added Sheriff Stevens, “not so different from what we went through with computers.”
Depending on the cost, the Sheriff’s Office is looking to get two drones, one for daytime use and one for night.