UPDATE: ACLU doubtful over Brookhaven police drone program

The Brookhaven Police Department has begun a new drone program it says will increase community safety, but a national civil liberties organization remains skeptical. 

The Brookhaven City Council approved the department’s Drone First Responder program in October of 2020. Police say the program is modeled after a similar drone program in Chula Vista, Calif., which dispatches drones to possible crime or incident scenes first so on-the-ground responders can have a better idea of what sort of situation they are responding to. 

During a Nov. 16 demonstration of the drone technology, Councilmember Linley Jones said the program “enables Brookhaven to continue on the path of being forward thinking when it comes to community safety.” 

Councilmember Linley Jones (third from left) and members of the Brookhaven Police Department pose with a drone from the department’s Drone First Responders Program.

Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura and Lt. Abrem Ayana – who oversaw the creation of the drone program – both said the BPD reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia and the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office for feedback and suggestions for the program. A spokesperson from the ACLU national organization confirmed that the BPD did reach out for feedback, but the ACLU still has questions about the use of drones by police in communities. 

“It’s important that when police departments introduce new technologies, especially surveillance technologies, that they reach out to the communities that they serve and make sure that those communities want the technologies they’re considering adopting,” said ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley. “That said, we are deeply skeptical of drones as first responder programs.”

Stanley said if a police department is going to make use of a drone program, the ACLU would rather a department ensure it happens with privacy protections in place, but the organization has “a lot of questions about whether it makes sense to deploy this kind of surveillance technology in communities.” 

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston also confirmed the BPD did reach out to her office about the drone program.

“In Spring 2021, the Brookhaven Police Department and their City Attorney met with me and my leadership team to brief us on this new and innovative drone program,” Boston said in an emailed statement. “I believe the manner in which they plan to use it will enhance public safety for both officers responding to dangerous situations and for the community at-large.” 

During the Nov. 16 demonstration, Ayana said the drones will only be used to respond to emergency calls and will not be dispatched for random surveillance. He said drone videos that don’t capture criminal activity would be deleted after 30 days. 

“We want people to feel safe and secure, and not necessarily feel that the government is maintaining video files of their movements,” Ayana said. “Our drones are only dispatched to known incidents or 911 calls. They are not used proactively for patrol.” 

Yandura said the BPD hopes that using drones as first responders will give officers more time to assess potentially dangerous situations. According to police documents from the October 2020 City Council meeting, the BPD also hopes the drones will be useful in letting officers know when police presence is not required. 

“It limits the need for officers to have contact with citizens who are not engaged in criminal activity,” Ayana said. 

In other documents from the City Council meeting, BPD names the COVID-19 pandemic as a major factor in starting the drone program. According to the council presentation, BPD hoped the drone program would “significantly reduce officer interaction with the public while still maintaining community policing efforts.”

Ayana said the team that operates the drones is made up of 16 licensed pilots. Since the program started, drones have responded to over 500 calls for service, according to BPD. Ayana said the drone response time is under two minutes on average. 

Update: This story has been updated with comments from the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office.

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