Minnesota law enforcement agencies using drones are confronting new transparency law

The state’s largest law enforcement agencies are ramping up use of drones that can capture information on criminals and civilians alike, and a new state law is ensuring the public knows more than ever about their usage.

The law mandates that agencies submit an annual report on drone usage, costs and if a search warrant was obtained for a flight. The law also requires law enforcement agencies to publish their drone policies on their websites.

“We tried to stay above board and be very transparent,” said Maj. Jeff Storms of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. “Our biggest fear was having something taken away from us that has been so useful.”

Drone technology is advancing rapidly and state governments across the country are scrambling to keep up, rolling out new laws that limit what information can be collected, how long the data is kept and what the public has a right to see. In recent years, state legislators intensified their focus on how law enforcement agencies are using the surveillance technology, which is used for everything from monitoring hostage situations to investigating routine car crashes.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has received reports from 106 law enforcement agencies for 2020 detailing drone inventory and usage across the state, said Jill Oliveira, a BCA spokeswoman. Officials are in the process of verifying the reports and making sure they are compliant with the law, she said. The 2020 report will be published by June 15.

Most large local and state police departments spent months testing drone programs to determine if the device would be beneficial to daily operations and to train officers to become certified to meet federal aviation guidelines.

Hennepin County worked with the state American Civil Liberties Union to develop its initial drone policy in 2016. The organization was influential in shaping the new state law, which took effect in August. The county implemented its revised policy in January and plans to hold a public hearing later this month.

Drones can cost between $3,000 and $60,000 depending on size and functionality, a bargain compared to the price of a helicopter or an airplane. They are small, highly maneuverable and often cannot be heard from the ground. Many of the latest drones used by law enforcement can be fitted with an array of attachments, such as infrared thermal cameras, spotlights and powerful zoom lenses.

Police departments from Golden Valley, Rochester and Big Lake, as well as the National Guard and the BCA, use drones. Each agency has a different focus for the use of the technology. Since 2016, Hennepin County has almost exclusively deployed drones for more than 50 search-and-rescue missions. That includes water rescues and searching for a missing child or a vulnerable adult with memory issues who wanders away from a residence or nursing home.

The State Patrol implemented its new drone policy in December. It had two drones, but bought seven more two weeks ago that are not yet in service. This year, troopers have flown 30 flights, most of which involved fatal-accident reconstructions, said Lt. Bob Zak of the State Patrol.

Drones save troopers valuable time at scenes, he said. Traditional surveillance of an accident takes several hours, but a drone can do the same work with sharper images in 15 minutes, he said. This allows freeways to open quicker after a crash and makes it safer for troopers and motorists.

The new drone law specifically details how law enforcement agencies can use drones. The vehicle can’t be deployed for facial recognition or to collect data at public demonstrations without a warrant. And it cannot be armed.

Shortly after the police killing of George Floyd last May, a government agency asked federal agents to circle a Predator surveillance drone 20,000 feet above Minneapolis during widespread protests over police brutality. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which flew the drone over the Twin Cities, said in a statement only that the aircraft was sent “at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis.”

ACLU of Minnesota Policy Director Julia Decker said she is pleased to see Hennepin County and other agencies taking the new law seriously. The organization worked with law enforcement to draw a balance between protecting the public and the ability for police to use new drone technology, she said.

“We will continue to monitor it and advance guardrails for civil liberties when necessary,” she said.

Rich Neumeister, a Minnesota advocate of open records and privacy, said the current law has too many exemptions that allow information to be collected and hidden from public view. For example, the law does not prohibit law enforcement agencies from loaning the technology to other government entities.

“The bottom line is that a lot of privacy was sold out” when legislators passed the law, he said.

Decker raised a concern with Hennepin County’s policy on data retention. State law requires data be destroyed within seven days unless it’s part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The county policy has a 30-day limit, but Storms said they have immediately deleted all data after each incident or turned it over to another agency for their cases.

The Minneapolis office of the FBI declined to be specific on how it uses drones, citing operational security reasons. In a statement, spokesman Kevin Smith said the FBI has had specific policies regarding drones since 2015.

From an investigative perspective, the FBI complies with all federal laws and regulations, according to a statement.

Officials in Dakota County and Rochester stressed how crucial drones have become to protect the safety of the public, officers and even suspects. Rochester assisted a neighboring county to catch an arsonist. Officers and canines unsuccessfully searched for hours, but the drone team found the suspect in 15 minutes, said Sgt. Travis Riggott.

The Dakota County Sheriff’s Office has five drones and their use is reviewed every two months by a citizens advisory council. If there was an incident at a large refinery or nuclear plant in the county, drones could be sent in first to survey the situation, said Sheriff Tim Leslie.

Not a week goes by that the Plymouth Police Department is not revving up a drone for a search-and-rescue mission, said Chief Erik Fadden. The city also uses drones to film community events and to document engineering projects.

He said drones are invaluable for police work.

“Last year, our SWAT team flew the drone up to the third floor of an apartment to check on a person who had shot bullets through the walls of the complex,” Fadden said. “With the drone, the negotiator could see the man was injured and the team could safely enter and call an ambulance.”

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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