The Fairbanks City Council could soon be voting on rules for the operation of drones used by the Fairbanks Police Department. The purpose of the new rules would be to protect citizen privacy, according to a new ordinance to be introduced at Monday’s council meeting.
Drones are currently used by Fairbanks Police to conduct traffic investigations and have also been used in the past year to assist in missing persons cases. They have also been used to monitor a transient camp on private land.
According to city Communications Director Teal Soden, the drones have mostly been used to reconstruct accident scenes. “It is a huge benefit in that it saves time and resources in the event that a serious traffic incident needs to be investigated,” she wrote.
Per state law, the police department must create a policy for the use of their drone, or “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS) program. Should Ordinance 6121 pass, it would place this drafted policy in city code.
The city has been working on the ordinance for a few months, according to Soden, and came about after the council asked for information about the drone program. Soden said the ordinance was mirrored after state law, and did not come as a result of citizen complaints.
State rules already exist for law enforcement operation of unmanned aerial systems, but they are relatively limited. Under AS 18.65.900, law enforcement officers running drones must have proper certification from the FAA and must be trained and certified to run the systems. The use of drones has to be done for a public purpose and when they are used, a record has to be kept and reported.
FPD has a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate within the city limits. There are four officers in the drone program.
Those restrictions outlined in Ordinance 6121 are much more specific. If all the listed restrictions pass, law enforcement drones could not be used for routine patrol activities, warrantless searches, as weapons, for surveillance of “constitutionally protected activities” or for traffic enforcement, except that related to accident investigation. The rules will also prohibit the use of city-owned drone equipment by outside agencies, including state and federal agencies.
Soden wrote, “Respecting people’s reasonable right to privacy does not change with the drone program.” Further, she said, “Officers cannot use the drone to circumvent any procedures already in place.”
Additionally, should Ordinance 6121 pass, a report of all the UAS activity would be given to city council each year. The report would include how many times the UAS was used, how it was used, any new policies within the agencies using UAS and the number of arrests made in relation to UAS activities. Finally, any time a change to UAS policy is considered, it will be brought before the council for their consideration.
Contact staff writer Cheryl Upshaw at 459-7572 or find her on Twitter @FDNMcity.