Skip to content

Why does the GRPD want to use drones?

March 22, 2020

Since last year, the Grand Rapids Police Department has been saying that they wanted to include the use of drones into their department.

MLive ran an article in late December discussing this issue, an article that included the use of a video about drones from another police department. In that same MLive story, it was stated that the GRPD would be hosting public meetings in the Spring of 2020 to talk about the use of drones and to give the public a chance to offer feedback.

In fact, there were meetings scheduled about the GRPD and drones for last week, but they were cancelled because of the COVID 19 outbreak. Here is the text from one of those scheduled meetings: 

The Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) and Grand Rapids Fire Department (GRFD) are inviting the community to learn more about the proposed use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in their public safety efforts.

The presentations will include information about the role of drones in public safety, how they can be used as first responders and how the departments would ensure privacy and individual liberties for community members. Attendees also will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback on the proposed program.

It is not surprising at all that the GRPD would present the use of drones within a “public safety” framework. As someone who has been part of the immigrant justice movement in recent years, the constant police harassment, intimidation and surveillance is always presented as, “we are here to keep you safe.” If drones are not really about public safety, then why are police departments and the GRPD in particular, interested in their use?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has some good information about the capabilities of drones and why police departments are using them.

According to EFF, drones are: 

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that can be equipped with high definition, live-feed video cameras, thermal infrared video cameras, heat sensors, and radar—all of which allow for sophisticated and persistent surveillance. Drones can record video or still images in daylight or infrared. They can also be equipped with other capabilities, such as cell-phone interception technology, as well as backend software tools like license plate readers, face recognition, and GPS trackers. There have been proposals for law enforcement to attach lethal and non-lethal weapons to drones.

EFF also states that between 2009 and 2017, there has been a substantial increase in local police and sheriff departments using drones, with nearly 350 departments incorporating them into use during that 8 year period. “Law enforcement agencies use drones for mass surveillance, crime investigation, search and rescue operations, locating stolen goods, and surveying land and infrastructure.”

Most states, including Michigan, do not require search warrants before using drones for search or surveillance, even if people have not been accused of a crime. Drones can be use as surveillance and to collect data on people, even when they are involved in constitutionally-protected activities.

So what can the residents of Grand Rapids do about the GRPD’s desire to use drones? First, whenever the public meetings are rescheduled, we should turn out in big numbers to say no to mass surveillance. If that doesn’t stop the GRPD in their desire to use drones, then we can work with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundations, which  encourages people to file public records requests with their own police agencies.

Like all technology, it can be used for good or it can be used as another tool for systems of power and oppression. We cannot allow the GRPD to use drones. Drones will definitely be used as a tool of mass surveillance and as a weapons against social movements that are challenging systems of power and oppression.

%d bloggers like this: