Our View: Police drones are an idea worth sharing
Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson acknowledged his opinion on the police department's potential use of drones has changed since it was first broached.
Recalling initial conversations, he told the Rochester Police Policy Oversight Commission last week that his immediate reaction was likely similar to many other residents'. "Mine was probably -- yes -- pretty negative, and that there's no way we're going down that road," he said.
Research and a presentation on how the unmanned devices could save lives and staff time have changed his opinion. "Rey (Caban) changed my mind, and I think you'll see why when you see his presentation," he said.
Caban, the police officer who instigated the discussion of unmanned aerial vehicles, noted the primary use of the drones would be looking for missing children and adults, as well as searching for fleeing suspects who could be dangerous when cornered. Both efforts can require a massive number of hours taken away from police patrols and efforts to answer other emergency calls. "Our focus will be to save lives," Caban said.
He said the case of a missing woman helped spur his desire to get a police-drone program started locally. While uncounted man hours went into the search, he noted police were unable to find the missing woman before she drowned in the river. "This is one of many cases that we've had that forced me to think about what we can do for the betterment of our community," he said.
The unmanned aerial vehicles are seen as an alternative to a police helicopter, which would be too costly for Rochester's department. While Minnesota State Patrol has a helicopter that can be accessed by local law enforcement, Peterson noted the response time too often is too long, if the helicopter is available.
As a helicopter replacement, Caban said drones could provide opportunities to safely look at scenes in hostage situations and when police are gearing up to enter high-risk situations. At the same time, Police Policy Oversight Commission members noted privacy and other concerns are raised when it comes to the potential for police officers to watch from above.
Too many unanswered questions remain to be able determine whether a drone program would be an asset to the police department or raise too many concerns to make it beneficial. The lack of state and local regulations and policies for drone use simply adds the list of questions.
While federal regulations provide limits on government use that can exceed commercial and private use, we expect a local policy would be needed to define use before the Rochester City Council approves the purchase of police drones.
While such policies are being considered and staff researches purchase options for the future, we would encourage the police department to go beyond city commissions with its presentations.
Caban has been able to quell some concerns about usage through his presentation, while answering questions about potential benefits for the police department and community.
We know many people are going to have opinions similar to those initially held by Peterson. Such opinions can only be changed with information that puts concerns to rest. By engaging the community before a budget is even requested, the police department could build grasssroots support for a project and could discover existing concerns that need to be addressed.
We're not ready to say yes or no to what could become the state's first police-drone program. However, we are ready to hear more about it.