The city of Brookhaven in Georgia will soon be sending drones out on 911 calls, and they will also be used to conduct other investigations. A measure approving funding for the drone program was approved on Tuesday night, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The Brookhaven Police Department will have four drones to send out on calls and investigations. The drones can also survey crime scenes and record evidence in real-time. Footage used by the drones could also be used in court, just as dash cameras and body cameras are.
Brookhaven is just the second city in the country to adopt this kind of program. The first was the Chula Vista Police Department in California, which began a drone program in 2018. In the two years that the drone program has been active in Chula Vista, local police say that it has led to 275 arrests and removed the need for human police on at least 650 calls.
Human officers will still be sent out on calls, especially those that are most sensitive, but drones will start to take over many of the day-to-day interactions that people have with police. Brookhaven police Lt. Abrem Ayana said that the drone program is “literally a game changer,” during a city meeting on Tuesday night.
The drones will be equipped with HD cameras that stream video back to the department’s crime center, and the cameras are also capable of using thermal imaging to more easily spot suspects at night. “It takes a lot of the hide-and-seek aspect out of hide-and-seek. We’re going to see a lot more suspects identified in crimes because a drone is going to get there first and provide information,” Ayana said.
During the meeting on Tuesday, the police department and the city council both downplayed any privacy risks that the new program could bring. Councilwoman Linley Jones said that “Privacy concerns and law enforcement are always a balancing act. But I think that this is a wonderful addition to the police force without being an extension of any intrusive nature of our policing.”
The department claims that they will not “intentionally” record “any location where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as private backyards or inside private buildings.” However, this leaves a lot of wiggle room for them to go on fishing expeditions and collect video footage from innocent people all over the city.
The department promises that all of the footage collected by the drones will be made publicly available through the Georgia Open Records Act, where body camera and dash camera footage is also available. This public availability is comforting to some and disturbing to others, considering that so much incidental footage that has nothing to do with any crimes is sure to be collected.
The drones will cost the city $83,700 for the first year, with an operating cost of $22,600 annually, but the program is expected to save the city a lot of money in the long run. The city of Brookhaven estimates sending a drone on a police call will cost only about 90% less than sending a human police officer.