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GRPD police drone proposal moves forward

Police countered privacy concerns during a presentation Tuesday and touted a variety of scenarios in which the technology could be used.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The fire department already uses them, now police drones are a step closer to becoming reality in the City of Grand Rapids.

That's after the public safety committee voted to forward the proposal on to the full city commission for a vote and ultimately a public hearing.

Not everyone was happy with the idea, however, with at least one group warning the technology would predominately target minority communities.

During Tuesday’s presentation in the Commission Chambers, Police Chief Eric Winstrom laid-out the goals driving the effort to get a fleet of cutting edge police drones off the ground.  

“In critical situations, they help immensely,” Winstrom told members of the Public Safety Committee.

If the idea does win broader commission approval, the department said its drone program would be based upon programs already in use by other police forces, existing regulations and rely heavily upon public input.

“Anyone who wants their voice to be heard on this, they have an ability to have input on it,” Winstrom later outlined plans, provided the effort was allowed to move forward, to host a series of engagement sessions in addition to the expected public hearing.

Once in place, the program would likely utilize small unmanned aerial systems or SUAS of several different shapes and sizes, which could then be loaded into a patrol car and operated by trained personnel already on department payroll.

The Department said its would-be drone fleet could be used in a multitude of scenarios:

  • Certain large-scale events
  • Mass shootings/mass casualty scenarios
  • Natural disasters
  • Water rescues
  • Similar emergencies requiring thermal imaging
  • Crash and crime scene reconstruction

The Department estimated the annual cost savings tied to reductions in labor-related expenses would amount to approximately $12,000 annually.

“It just offers a pretty unique perspective and allows us to deploy our manpower and our resources in a much more efficient way,” another presenter noted.

At least one group, Defund the GRPD, came out against the effort on Facebook ahead of Tuesday’s public safety session. In several posts, the group raised privacy-related concerns and suggested the technology would disproportionately target minority groups.

The Department, Winstrom said, understood and heard their concerns.

The city’s surveillance policy, he said, already featured a set of ground rules which would also apply to the drone program in question.

During the presentation Tuesday, it outlined a number of possible uses which wouldn’t be permitted:

  • Spying
  • Open data collection.
  • General surveillance
  • Harassment

Reports, it said, would also be required to be reviewed often by an outside agency to ensure transparency.

“It's all mission directed,” Winstrom said. “It's not surveillance.”

The GRPD Chief went on to reference the drone program operated by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and those of much smaller departments as a sign the state’s second largest city would be best served by its own initiative, better protecting residents, he said, and enabling investigators to remain competitive.  

“There's a lot of much smaller agencies in Michigan, that already have drones going on,” he noted. “It's something I am excited about moving forward with. I hope we will get there.”

Presenters ball-parked the startup costs as approximately $100-thousand with additional yearly costs.

Once the full commission has heard the proposal, expected during an upcoming session, they’ll decide whether or not to move it forward with a public hearing.

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