Wichita police are buying a drone, and they want public input on its use

Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center.
Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center. The Wichita Eagle

Wichita police will soon have a drone to fly over crash scenes, SWAT standoffs and Riverfest. But could it also fly over your backyard?

That's what members of the Citizen Review Board asked when police proposed a drone policy at last week's meeting.

Capt. Doug Nolte said police are already purchasing one drone for the department.

"Before we actually deploy it or ever use it, we want to have a policy in place so people are aware of the fact that we have it, what we are going to use it for, what they can expect, and I think if you listen to what (board members) were mentioning today, there are definitely concerns about privacy," Nolte said.

Police Chief Gordon Ramsay started the drone discussion by mentioning "Big Brother" and privacy concerns. He asked for feedback from board members and the community that could be incorporated into the policy.

The nine-page proposed policy says drones will assist "the Department in the prevention of crime, the apprehension of criminals, the preservation of the public peace, and to protect the personal and property rights of the citizens of Wichita."

"These operational procedures are designed to minimize risk to people, property, and aircraft during the operation of the SUAs (small unmanned aircraft) while continuing to safeguard the right to privacy of all persons," the policy states.

Privacy is never again mentioned in the policy.

Possible uses include tactical operations — such as a SWAT standoff — crash reconstruction, search and rescue operations, crime scene documentation, mapping of critical infrastructure, planning for large-scale public events and approved deployment outside of Sedgwick County. The policy does not prohibit or restrict any uses.

Newton police Lt. Bryan Hall demonstrates one of the department's new drones. Includes footage above a recent injury crash near Newton. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle/April 9, 2016)

Multiple board members and people in the audience asked privacy-related questions of Nolte and Ramsay as well as Barry Grissom, a former U.S. attorney for Kansas who serves as a consultant to the board.

Grissom said a warrant would be needed for officers to use the drone to peek into windows or survey a garden looking for marijuana plants.

But many board members were still concerned about drones flying over private property and what their cameras would pick up as they move from one area to another.

"That is my worry, too; I've got a pool and I have children, and I don't want some stranger hovering over that watching," Ramsay said.

The policy states that pilots should obtain "as much intelligence data as is available" during aircraft operations. It also requires members to follow the Public Safety Camera policy. No policy by that name is listed on the department's website.

Nolte said some community members may be concerned about potential misuse by police.

At one point, Ramsay brought up a traffic camera policy on its privacy requirements concerning private residences.

The 97 cameras monitoring Old Town were used by officers in October and November to ticket drivers whose infractions were caught by a staffer in City Hall. In a two-hour period on a Thursday morning, staffers witnessed 88 violations on cameras while officers issued 55 citations and gave four warnings. The city manager later said he planned to dial back the use of the cameras.

One police sergeant said at the time that half of the people he talked to supported the use of cameras to ticket drivers while the other half — including his wife and daughter — were not necessarily on board.

Nolte said the community response to the traffic cameras had some impact on how police brought the drone policy to the public.

"We found out through the Old Town cameras we could do a better job of vetting out policy," he said. "I think what the chief has always envisioned is a mechanism by which we can put policy on a regular basis out to the public."

Ramsay said the department plans to add a spot on the website for members of the community to express their thoughts on the drone policy. Citizen Review Board members also can speak with their communities and bring back what they hear, Nolte said.

The Citizen Review Board is made up of seven members and six alternates selected by the city manager. It can make recommendations that the department may or may not adopt, review officer misconduct cases and help with community outreach. It can't conduct its own investigations, subpoena information or recommend discipline for specific officers.

The proposed drone policy details aircraft and pilot requirements. Pilots must complete training and know FAA requirements and what airspace they can operate in. Ramsay said all operators must have an FAA license. All flights must have a trained observer who assists the pilot with navigation.

Batteries must be fully charged before flights. Pilots must fly in GPS mode and are not permitted to fly in Attitude mode, with no exceptions.

GPS mode is generally considered better for beginners, taking images while maintaining a fixed position, flying on a fixed course and doing exact moves in relation to a stationary object. Attitude mode is generally considered better at flying faster in any direction, chasing a car, taking smoother images while flying, flying when it's windy and flying through trees or near tall buildings.

There never was a definitive answer on whether officers would be allowed to fly drones over private yards without a warrant.

Board member discussion notes ask for more information from police on other issues, including drone capabilities, risks associated with using the equipment, prohibited uses, airspace limitations, photo and video retention, Department of Justice guidance and whether drones will be used for targeted surveillance of individuals or properties.

Police said they would gather more information before the next meeting on Aug. 2. Nolte said he expects the policy to be rewritten with a greater emphasis on privacy.

Drone use among area law enforcement agencies is relatively new.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office added two drones earlier this month. Police in Newton joined with the sheriff's office in Harvey County to purchase two drones in 2016.

When Wichita police chose to stop using its helicopter at the start of 2017, the department was already considering adding a drone. The helicopter had cost about $300,000 to $350,000 a year.

But Lt. Paul Shields, who piloted the helicopter, told The Eagle at the time that he had concerns about the effectiveness of drones, considering airspace restrictions over the Wichita metropolitan area.

"I think the general public would be very averse" to using drones to provide aerial surveillance, Shields said. "It just seems to me that it is so Orwellian and Big Brother-like. They don't want that hovering right out their bedroom window."