Albany Public Forum: Drone Policing

Jul 17, 2019

Cutting edge investigative and crimefighting technology is cleared for landing in the Albany Police Department's tactical toolbox.

They'll help police locate missing people, investigate infrastructure issues, fly over and evaluate accident scenes — and be used as a tool in tactical responses. 

"We have a drone program that we'll be launching real soon," said Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins, who adds the force has been testing and evaluating UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and, as a measure of transparency, scheduled a series of forums, hosted by The Albany Community Policing Advisory Committee, to detail the program, its objectives, impacts on privacy, and answer questions.

Detective Roman Romagnano and the APD's Emergency Services Team Leader Scott Gottesman at Albany's Hibernian Hall.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Tuesday night's gathering at Albany's Hibernian Hall in the Pine Hills area was headed by Scott Gottesman, the APD's  Emergency Services Team Leader. He says the two drones that passed the evaluation stage will cost $52,500, funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant.   "Basically what they're paying for is the product, the drones. The cost of running the program and the support are being covered by the city itself. And to give you an estimate of what that costs, it's not up and running yet. It's hard to say that its sustainable cost is going to be this much money, at least until we have it up for like six months."

One drone is your typical outdoor model, the other an indoor version originally developed for HVAC systems.

Initially two operators, one for each drone, will be trained, assigned to gather data and report back to superiors who will work with Hawkins to determine the best number of operators needed.   "And we won't know that until we start utilizing to see how much flight time we're gonna need, and then you have to weigh how many operators you have to how much training time you can dedicate it, because we do know that maintaining your licensure you have to have so many take-offs, so many landings and so much flight time."

The drones’ services will be shared with the fire department and other agencies.  Gottesman addressed residents’ privacy concerns.   "So we're gonna mimic the body-worn camera policy as far as the times that we maintain the video footage, but its utilization is different because officers go on a lot more calls than what we would be out."

He added APD drones will never be “weaponized” nor will their cameras employ facial-recognition technology, and notes the various scenarios and encounters would likely play out much differently than what law enforcement previously considered the norm.  "Search warrants, active shooter, search and rescue, that kind of stuff. If it's  evidentury in nature then we would have to make that determination with the district attorney's office as to how long that footage is going to be stored for. If we're going out for codes, looking at rooftops, we would edit that footage so that they got the piece of footage they needed, we would turn that over to them, they would determine how long they needed it for or whether they need it all, and that may just be that they wanna watch the monitor, make their inspections, take their notes and move on to the next one and not have footage at all. It's hard because we don't have the drones yet to understand what the full capacity of the program is going to be."

Detective Roman Romagnano is going to run and document the new program.   "Once we do get the drones we are going to apply for a certificate of authorization. In an emergency situation we may need to fly at night, so that'll cover that. We may need to go over 400 feet at some point in time, maybe or maybe not, but that's the aspect I'm gonna be doing, I'm gonna make sure that we have everything that we need, and then training, we gotta document all of our training. Checklists. We gotta make sure all of the drones are properly maintained, where they're stored, everything like that."

Chief Hawkins expects six Albany officers will be fully trained to fly drones soon.