Law enforcement drone policy

With the increased use of drones both by civilians and government agencies, it’s essential for your police department to craft effective drone policies.

December 22, 2020

Article highlights

  • How both civilians and police use drones today.
  • Insights from a drone policy expert.
  • How to develop a comprehensive drone strategy.

With the increased use of drones both by civilians and government agencies, it’s essential for your police department to craft effective law enforcement drone policy.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are aircraft that fly without a pilot on board.

UAVs vary in size and capabilities—from high-tech military drones all the way down to the remote-controlled toys many teens received for Christmas.

Drones are fairly new technology, but they’re gaining prominence. The military has been using UAVs for years in combat and surveillance operations.

Many people still associate drones with military activity, but drones have several different commercial and recreational uses. Companies have begun using them to make deliveries.

Photographers and videographers sometimes use them for overhead footage and photos. And many law enforcement agencies have started using them, as well.

As part of our series on crucial policies for law enforcement, this post will cover how civilian drone use affects your agency, how your department can prepare for the coming wave of drone technology, and how to craft effective policies around your state’s drone laws.

Why should law enforcement care about drones?

Civilians can use (and abuse) drones

Civilian drone use comes with tricky issues of privacy, trespassing, and property damage. It’s often up to law enforcement officers to decide how to handle disputes over these issues.


Since drones are a relatively new technology, there are few federal regulations governing their use. The Federal Aviation Administration’s guidelines for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles mostly cover how drones can interact with other aircrafts.

States, counties, and cities are left to govern other aspects of drone use.

So far, 33 states have created laws addressing UAVs, and four states have adopted resolutions. (You can check here to see your state’s legislation).

The legislation varies widely. For example, Michigan law prohibits sex offenders from using a drone to follow, contact, or photograph a person they are prohibited from contacting.

Utah makes flying a drone within 250 feet of a wildfire a class B misdemeanor.

When crafting law enforcement drone policy, your agency needs to keep up to date on these laws, as well as laws covering privacy and trespassing.


Good law enforcement drone policy can help guide your officers in handling disputes over drones.

For example, if your agency receives a disturbance call that someone is flying a drone over a private property, your officers must know what constitutional grounds they have to charge the drone user.

Law enforcement agencies can use drones to police more efficiently

Law enforcement agencies around the country have used drones to collect evidence and conduct surveillance.

Agencies can also use UAVs to photograph traffic crash scenes, monitor correctional facilities, track prison escapees, control crowds, and more.

If implemented and used carefully, drones have the potential to be a tremendous asset to law enforcement.

They can help agencies gather essential information in dangerous situations while saving manpower and money.

In 2015, the Illinois State Police started using UAVs to monitor accident scenes. Department leaders reported that using UAVs helped them more quickly document the scenes and reopen roadways.

In early 2016, a drone helped an Ohio police department track down an escaped inmate. The department plans to continue using the drone to track suspects, find missing people, and map crime scenes.

Future uses of drones

As drone technology advances, UAVs may become more useful for emergency services. Researches at MIT and Olin College are working to develop a drone that can be used to fight fires.

UAVs can support search and rescue operations in areas that may be difficult for humans to reach.

For example, a German nonprofit is developing drones that can deliver defibrillators to heart attack victims.

The drones would be able to quickly reach people in rural areas, and potentially keep them alive until emergency personnel arrived on the scene.

The importance of law enforcement drone policy

It’s important to have a policy the addresses both civilian drone use and your law enforcement agency’s use of drones.

Along with laws that limit civilian use of drones, some states have laws regulating law enforcement use of drones.

For example, Vermont has strict rules regulating law enforcement agencies using drones to investigate, detect, and prosecute crimes.

And, according to a report published by the national conference of state legislatures, public agencies (including police departments) must obtain a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA in order to use a drone.


Law enforcement agencies must take laws, regulations, and best practices into account when developing drone policies.

In areas that don’t have robust laws governing civilian drone use, law enforcement agencies can collaborate with government bodies to help develop regulations and policies that work for their communities.

John Gordnier, a consultant and former California assistant attorney general, says drone issues need to be addressed on a regional basis.

“The last thing that we need to have happen in regarding drone use is to have a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says.

Good drone policies can ensure that both law enforcement agencies and civilians use drones responsibly.

Law enforcement needs and civilian attitudes about drones will vary depending on the location, and good policies will balance the rights of citizens and the interests of law enforcement.

Writing policies for law enforcement use of drones

Law enforcement drone use is still controversial, so agencies must be extra careful when implementing a drone program.

The community needs to be able to trust that police won’t use drones to spy on them or harm them.

Good policies are key in making sure your law enforcement’s use of drones doesn’t violate citizen’s rights.

The Department of Homeland Security released a set of guidelines for protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties in drone programs.

It’s a must-read in preparing to write your drone policy. The best practices can be summarized in the following points:

“The last thing that we need to have happen in regarding drone use is to have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

1. Know your state laws

Some states have specifically restricted drone use in law enforcement. But even if your state doesn’t put stipulations on drone use, your agency must make sure your intended use of drones doesn’t violate any civil rights or search and seizure laws.

Consult with legal counsel and civil rights experts to ensure compliance with regulations and protection of individual rights.

2. Know your purpose and stick to it

John Gordnier suggests that law enforcement agencies establish a clear purpose for using drones before purchasing them and starting to use them.

“The thing law enforcement has to do is decide how and how often and for what purposes it’s going to use a drone, then buy a drone that meets those purposes,” he says.

Clearly stating the purpose of your drone program can help you get buy-in from the community and determine what equipment your drone needs.

3. Have a specific plan for the storage and dissemination of the data collected by drones

“Intelligence and good police work is based on information,” Gordnier says. “The more information you have, the better you’re able to protect your community.”

However, he warns law enforcement agencies against “collecting too much data and holding it too long on too many people in whom you have no interest.”

Holding on to photos and videos of individuals you aren’t investigating can result in serious privacy issues.

The Department of Homeland Security suggests using other existing policies to determine a “reasonable period” to retain recorded images that don’t relate to cases.


4. Be transparent with the community

Without public support, your drone program will never get off the ground. And because of the negative stigma around drones, it’s wise to over-communicate.

Gordnier advises agencies to work with citizens to establish rational policies for drones.

“The goal is to get buy-in from the public,” he says. “It’s got to be a forthcoming dialogue.”

Gordnier says law enforcement agencies have an opportunity to set the standard for responsible drone use and establish credibility with UAV use in the community.

As you establish policies and start implementing a drone program, create space to listen to concerns from community members.

This will make sure your program can be effective long-term.

5. Train personnel

Make sure your drone operators meet FAA training requirements and hold the proper certification.

Good drone policies will help you hold personnel accountable and let you check in often for reviews and updated training.

High-reward, high-risk


Drones have the potential to make policing easier, but they also come with a lot of risks. In implementing a drone program and writing policies, your agency must make sure to follow all federal, state, and local regulations.

At best, misusing drones could result in evidence inadmissible in court because of the way it was acquired.

At worst, it could result in officers being charged with violating laws or civil liberties.

It’s essential for your law enforcement agency to clearly communicate drone purposes and policies with civilians. You also must properly disseminate policies among your staff, and have an effective system for training.

Your drone policy is just one of the 12 law enforcement policies every agency needs to protect its community, officers, and reputation in an era of increased scrutiny and litigation.

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