Minneapolis residents push back on MPD drone policy

Drone
This is one of several small drones designed for use by law enforcement and first responders, taken during a practice session May 14 at University of North Dakota- Grand Forks, N.D. This four-rotor helicopter is one of three unmanned aircraft being used by law enforcement in the Grand Forks area.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2013

A Minneapolis Police Department plan to create a drone program drew criticism from most residents testifying at a public hearing on Wednesday afternoon.

Police told members of the Minneapolis City Council that the drones would not be used in surveillance, but would be used to help coordinate law enforcement responses during emergencies.

Minneapolis Police Department Commander Jonathan Kingsbury said policies the department is proposing would ensure the drones wouldn’t be used to violate residents’ rights.

“[They] can not be deployed unless the commander of special operations, or deputy chief or above authorizes it. So currently that’s only six people in the police department that can authorize its use,” Kingsbury said, “Not just any officer out on the street deciding to fly a drone.”

Kingsbury said city leaders have met with critics of drones including the American Civil Liberties Union and adjusted their policies. Minneapolis police said they’ll require a full police report every time the drones are used. He said that they’ve established policies to delete video from the drones and that they won’t deploy facial recognition technology or weapons on the airborne devices.

The Minneapolis police say they plan to spend about $40,000 dollars on drones and train between six and ten officers to pilot them. There’s no exact timeline for the department to launch the program.

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Some members of the public who spoke at the hearing said the police department hadn’t respected resident privacy in the past.

Minneapolis resident Marika Pfefferkorn, who represents a group called the Safety Not Surveillance Coalition, said the potential for the police to surveil people without oversight is dangerous.

”The human impact has been demonstrated by lived experience and research that Black and brown communities are impacted more greatly than others,” Pfefferkorn said. “The human impact is that lives are changed when surveillance happens and mistakes have been made.”

In an interview with MPR News, Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw said the drone program is needed.

“We're down in officers, a few 100 officers,” Vetaw said. “This technology can be used to assist with a lot of the pushback we're getting from people about what officers do at the scene of crime.”

The Minneapolis City Council hosted the meeting but doesn’t have direct authority over the police department, which is ultimately controlled by Mayor Jacob Frey.

State law requires police departments to hold public hearings before instituting drone programs. Public comments on the drone plan can also be submitted on the city's website.

In a report to the Minnesota Legislature last year, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension disclosed that 93 law enforcement agencies around the state use drones. Together they spent almost $1 million dollars in 2020 on the programs.