After police drone hearing, some Minneapolis council members look to rein in their use

This is one of several small drones designed for use by law enforcement and first responders, taken during a practice session May 14, 2013 at University of North Dakota- Grand Forks, N.D.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2013
a woman poses for a portrait outside
Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis City Council members heard from the public last week about a draft policy on police drones. State law already permits law enforcement to use the unmanned aerial vehicles, but departments need to hold a public hearing before establishing a drone program.

After the hearing, Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley said she’d like to see additional oversight of the Minneapolis Police Department’s use of drones. She joined MPR News host Tom Crann on All Things Considered Friday to talk about it.

Hear their conversation using the audio player above, or read a transcript of it below. It has been lightly edited for length.

Tell us what kinds of things you heard from members of the public at the hearing, and was it fairly universal or was it split?

We had more than 25 residents come testify, and overwhelmingly, testifiers told us not to move forward with this program. In our recent Minnesota Department of Human Rights findings, MPD was found to violate human rights in its usage of other surveillance technologies, such as Facebook, for no purpose of investigation. So many members of the community raised the point that we should probably put a moratorium on any type of surveillance technology until the consent decree process is finalized. That agreement could include legal language on drones to hold MPD accountable.

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I understand you want to see more restrictive drone policy and plan to have it on the agenda next month.

So I do want to provide some clarification on that point. I want to uplift the work of our previous council members, specifically Steve Fletcher, who worked with a number of external partners and staff to bring forward a policy packet that includes a ban on facial recognition last year. A follow up to that policy was supposed to be also around overall surveillance. And that ordinance was carried over into this new administration.

Currently, Council Member Elliott Payne and Council Vice President Linea Palmisano are coordinating that. We are not bringing anything new to the council; we're bringing forward a status update. If we have something on the books, let's hear about it. What's the status on that and does it apply here?

We had your colleague on the board, Ward 4 Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw, on to talk about this also.She said the drones could help address some of the problems that you and others have raised about police accountability. Her example was that drones could help police monitor a situation and then be more circumspect about using deadly force. Does she have a point there?

In the presentation that MPD made, they highlighted that their main intent for using these drones is emergency responses. You know, many of our testifier made a great point. Why not have the fire department be able to utilize the technology instead?

One, on the basis that currently our fire department has more credibility and trust in the community. And two, they're currently not under a federal investigation. They currently have not been found to violate human rights. So community members are comfortable with the city using this technology in dire circumstances. We just don't trust MPD to be a place where this technology is used.

MPD can use them now under state law, if they borrow them from other jurisdictions. Is there anything you and your colleagues can do to put a pause there?

I think this is why we would like to have that surveillance ordinance update come before council in two weeks, to really talk about what do we have. Because Mayor Jacob Frey currently holds that authority over MPD. What we can do though, is — and this has been made very clear by our city attorney — we can create policies around surveillance technology usage citywide.