Writing Your Police Department's Drone Policy

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, are becoming a key tool in helping law enforcement support and promote public safety.

December 23, 2020

Article highlights

More and more law enforcement and governmental agencies are using Unmanned Aerials Vehicles (UAVs) to support public safety initiatives.

These unmanned aircraft can assist in investigations involving dangerous environments such as chemical spills or radiological exposure. They can also help with search and rescue missions, assisting first responders, inspecting utilities, monitoring evacuation routes, and more.

Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) heavily utilizes UAVs to keep borders secure.

Though many call them “drones,” civilians often associate the term with military or weaponized aircraft. For that reason, you should consider standardizing the terms “unmanned aerial vehicle” or “unmanned aircraft.”

It’s up to law enforcement leaders to both promote appropriate use of UAVs and equip the public to understand their purpose. This is where drone policy comes in.

Still, questions from the public remain. According to the DHS, new technology often provokes concern.

“The development of a new technology, significant improvement of a current technology, or the new application of an existing technology often results in concerns about the impact on individual privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

“For instance, the integration of government and commercial unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System by 2015, as required by the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, has prompted questions about how this might impact individual rights.”

When implementing UAVs in your agency, it is key to balance public safety advantages with the public’s trust.

Despite the obvious benefits, law enforcement agencies must ensure the use of UAVs does not infringe on anyone’s individual rights.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has authority to develop and maintain regulations for unmanned aircraft, even small or personal UAVs. However, they have kept regulations very broad.

According to drone policy expert John Gordnier, formerly of the California State Attorney General’s Office, “there is little case law that has directly considered the constitutional aspects of UAV use,” nor are there definitive guidelines.

As a public servant, you know it’s your job to establish a healthy relationship with your community while maintaining its safety. That’s why writing a solid drone policy is crucial. Here is a step-by-step guide to equip your department as you write a UAV policy of your own.

Things to consider before writing a UAV policy

Lack of definitive federal guidelines for how law enforcement agencies can use UAVs

Because the FAA has kept regulations broad, law enforcement must work together to ensure any use of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is in line with community expectations.

It’s up to you to define your policy’s guidelines to both strengthen and protect your agency and the public. Don’t hesitate to involve experts who can guide you.

Before purchasing a drone, work together with legal counsel, local governing bodies, and members of the public. Privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties groups may prove especially helpful.

Be open and transparent throughout the process

Ongoing openness is the best way to overcome concerns public concern.

According to DHS’s Best Practices for Protecting Privacy, Civil Rights & Civil Liberties In Unmanned Aircraft Systems Programs, “Public support is essential for an unmanned aircraft program’s success. A program that is not transparent according to applicable laws, agency policies, and best practices may quickly lose support and create misperceptions about the program’s intended mission(s).”


To demonstrate your commitment to public service, make sure you write the privacy constraints directly into your drone policy and procedures.

This will ensure you continually consider and serve your community throughout the process of developing a UAV program.

Determine the specific uses for your Unmanned Aircraft System

Your community will likely want to know how you are using drones. Choose appropriate uses for your community and make sure they increase public and officer safety and allow you to do your job more effectively and efficiently.

Also, take note of the needs in your location and shape your proposed uses around those. Obviously, needs and restrictions in a heavily populated urban area will be different from an expansive rural locale.

In the spirit of openness, share those specific use cases with the public.

As you develop your uses, Gordnier suggests in his sample drone policy that you ensure UAVs will “do the task more effectively than existing methods; do the task in a fiscally sound way; will provide greater public and officer safety; and will involve no greater intrusion on constitutional rights than existing methods which have been approved by judicial decisions.”

You may also consider sharing the unmanned aerial vehicle with other public safety agencies.

Gordnier recommends to “buy a drone in conjunction with other agency uses, fire for example. You’re then able to go to the public and say, ‘We’ve got 7-10 city agencies that can use this UAV to save money for the city [and] do their job more efficiently.’”

Ongoing commitment to privacy concerns

Drone use and policy development are not a one-and-done type of commitment.

Rapid changes in technology mean you will regularly need to review how you use your UAS. This also means you will probably need to update your policies and procedures frequently.

For this reason, you may want to form a task force or review board to oversee the program’s mission and directives.

Ongoing review of UAS use supported by a diligent task force not only displays your commitment to public safety. It also builds a trusting relationship with those you serve.

Writing your department’s policy

Defining terms

You already know clarity is key to any good policy.

But because drone use directly affects both public safety and privacy, defining your terms up front is very important. There are several things to consider as you write your drone policy:

  • UAV/UAS/UAVS (Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle, Unmanned Aerial System, Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle System): What type of vehicle will you be purchasing?
  • Public Safety Agency: Which departments or agencies have access to the vehicle?
  • Public Safety Purpose: What scenarios that warrant use of a UAV? Be as specific as possible.
  • Operators/Personnel: Who will fly the vehicle? Who will have access to the room where vehicles are stored?
  • Flight Data/Information: What information from the flight (time, date, path, purpose, request, etc) will you record?

Proactively defining your terms in the beginning will enable you to make stronger decisions as you move forward.


Take time to think about what’s important to you, and write a UAV policy that’s right for you, your department, and the well-being of your community.

UAV specifications

Once you establish the basic terms of your unmanned aerial vehicle usage, you will want to consider other details that will affect your department and surrounding community.

From the get-go, be very clear about what capabilities the drone will have and what features you will not use. Only purchase UAVs that meet your predetermined use cases.

If you have already purchased a drone with additional capabilities or can’t find an exact fit, describe how those additional capabilities will be disabled or controlled.

Also, consider any requirements to protect against hijacking the vehicle (these are often built into the UAV itself). It’s important to put safeguards in place for inevitable repairs and maintenance.

Certification and training of operators

Knowing who will operate your vehicles is another important aspect of developing your policy. The FAA may be a helpful resource as you select and train your officers. They offer some training/materials to help become a pilot.

Gordnier recommends very clear standards when it comes to certification and training. He lists formal training and authorization from the FAA along with training in your department’s policies as prerequisites.

He also notes that because UAV use deals with unique public safety issues, general training in search, seizure, and privacy are helpful.

Operating policy and procedures

After you determine who will operate your vehicles, you can explore operating policy and procedures.

Start by appointing someone who will oversee the drone use in your department. This supervisor will work to ensure optimal safety, professionalism, and privacy.

He or she will also deal with other issues that might come up, including requests for drone use.

It’s important to consider how you want to receive and approve drone-usage requests and what criteria you will require.

Will you make allowances in emergency situations, and do local or state laws require any prior judicial approval? Make note of all of this in your policy manual.


Gordnier recommends capturing as much detail as possible in writing. For example, it might help to create a policy requiring team members to submit written requests for drone use. Keeping track of flight data and information are also helpful requirements.

Data retention

Being clear about plans for data retention is also helpful in writing a drone policy. Information you log will be a helpful analysis tool for your agency in its pursuit of increased community safety.

However, not all data is created equal.

You will need to define relevant vs. non-relevant data ahead of time. What will you do with non-relevant data that isn’t used in an active investigation? How long will you store it? And will relevant data be available for public inspection?

Learn more about writing effective law enforcement policies today.


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