[Editor’s Note: Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office was awarded a $1 million grant from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to pay for the drone program.]
This post originally appeared on http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/crime–law/drones-new-tool-for-pbso-rescue-efforts-trafficking-crackdowns/bmOAgWvJ7UzYS7G7lcdm9I/.
Drones may soon become the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office newest tool to search for missing people and help in emergency-response efforts.
County commissioners recently gave the office permission to start a drone pilot program. The office has been awarded a $1 million grant from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to pay for it.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to questions about the drone program, but a copy of its agreement with FDLE indicates that the the Unmanned Aircraft System Pilot Program will primarily be used for marine scenarios involving search-and-rescue missions, cracking down on human- and drug-trafficking activities and “providing situational awareness of persons whose lives are in imminent danger.”
Activities will be limited to navigable bodies of water within 25 miles of the office’s jurisdiction, according to the agreement. The program will operate round the clock.
Among local agencies, the sheriff’s office joins Palm Beach Gardens in using drones.
Last month, the city’s police and fire departments announced that each department will have a drone for emergency responses. City officials say certified pilots will use the drones to find missing children and adults, help to catch fleeing criminals and respond to hazardous-material spills. The drones may also be used to assess storm damage and monitor extreme traffic conditions.
The fire department’s drone is equipped with a thermal-imaging camera that can detect the source of a fire in a burning house, or the body heat of a missing and wandering person.
Police Chief Stephen Stepp said that the drones will not be used for widespread surveillance.
“By no means will we use it to spy on people or anything like that,” Stepp told The Palm Beach Post last month.
State law restricts how drones can be used by law enforcement and prohibits government agencies from using drones to conduct surveillance work. James K. Green, a constitutional attorney and past president of Florida’s ACLU chapter, said that while drones can be useful in emergency situations, rigid safeguards are needed to ensure that the technology is not abused.
“The potential to use this for surveillance raises serious questions about privacy and the potential for warrantless mass surveillance,” Green said. “Just because it’s new technology doesn’t mean our constitutional privacy protections should be ignored.”
Palm Beach Gardens police officials have said their drone will record any time it’s on an official mission and that the footage gathered will be stored on a memory card. How long the footage will be kept by the city will depend on the type of incident it recorded.
City Fire Chief Keith Bryer said his department has not yet had a chance to put its drone to use. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spokesman Capt. Albert Borroto said his department does not have a drone program, but a committee is examining what benefits drones might provide.