DOJ Report Recommends Police Acquire Drone Detection Devices

The Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) has released a report on the use of drones by police as well as the threat posed by malicious drones. 

Drones A Report on the Use of Drones by Public Safety Agencies— and a Wake-Up Call about the Threat of Malicious Drone Attacks reports on two opposite but related issues: the use of drones by police agencies to protect public safety and the use of drones by malicious actors to commit various crimes such as acts of terrorism.

The bulk of the document provides guidance to police and sheriffs’ departments about how to identify the ways in which drones could facilitate their work and how to create a drone program to accomplish those goals. 

The report includes the following guidance on selecting drone equipment:

  • Decide on the goals and purposes of your drone program and establish the operational parameters and specifications of features and capabilities you need to inform your purchase of drone equipment.
  • Regardless of your specific drone model needs, start small, use inexpensive models first, and test your equipment prior to program implementation.
  • Implement your drone program on a trial basis with a set time for a formal evaluation process. This process allows flexibility to make changes to the scope of services and equipment needed for your program before final implementation.
  • Take incremental steps as you develop your program to allow time to solicit community feedback and adjust as necessary.
  • Funding will naturally affect any agency’s decision-making. Some drones and their associated technology are expensive in addition to the personnel hours and IT support that each program requires. 

In budgeting for a drone program, the report advises police forces to consider the initial equipment costs as well as the long-term training, maintenance, and upgrade costs that come with maintaining drones. The authors also recommend engaging the community in supporting drone use to help secure funding for the program. 

The report says a cost-benefit analysis should be conducted to demonstrate cost savings associated with drone use. For example, drones can be far more cost-effective than helicopters in performing certain functions. Of course, it is also worth looking into potential grants or community partnerships to help offset program costs.

The remainder of the report focuses on the malicious use of drones. The report states that the United States is currently extremely vulnerable to drone attacks because federal law enforcement agencies were only given the legal authority to use the most effective types of technologies to detect and mitigate drone threats in late 2018. It describes how local police and sheriffs’ departments still are unable to purchase or use most counter-drone technologies because of concerns they might break the law when employing them and the danger of interference with air traffic in the National Airspace System. 

There are of course important reasons for limiting drone detection and mitigation technologies. As the report explains, careless or unskilled use of these technologies could result in disaster. For example, technologies that use radio signals to jam an incoming malicious drone or seize control of it, improperly used, might interfere with radio signals used by commercial or private airplanes or air traffic controllers. 

The drone strikes against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, which temporarily disrupted approximately half of that kingdom’s oil production capacity, demonstrate how much harm can be done by the malicious use of drones.

A number of federal and local law enforcement agencies have begun to explore counter-drone strategies at major events and mass gatherings such as the Super Bowl. But this work is still developing. The report’s authors say federal, state, and local lawmakers and government officials, including law enforcement officials, should accelerate their efforts to address these issues as soon as possible. 

The new authority for the FAA to regulate drones through rulemaking requiring remote identification will mean that law enforcement agents can immediately be alerted electronically to the presence of a particular drone and can read the electronic “signature” of the drone and receive information about the identity of the operator. This is intended to help agents distinguish drones of hobbyists and legitimate organizations, such as TV news drones, from potential threats. 

The report reminds the law enforcement community that the new federal law does not provide authority to state and local police to disable threatening drones. Only certain federal agencies are given these new powers. However, state and local police agencies can apply to seek assistance from the departments of Homeland Security and Justice which can use their authorities under the act upon request from the chief executive officer of the state or territory concerned.

The report concludes with a warning that the current level of danger from a drone attack is high and recommends that state and local police should begin the process of acquiring drone detection devices that they can lawfully use, learning how to use them, and working to protect major events against drone attacks unilaterally and in concert with federal law enforcement officials.

Read the full report here

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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