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Asheville police say drones help with officer shortage downtown, but program operates with lack of transparency and community input

A drone flies over downtown Asheville, after being launched from the Municipal Building.
BPR News
A drone flies over downtown Asheville, after being launched from the Municipal Building.

In mid-June, the Asheville Police Department (APD) announced the launch of its Drone First Responder program, but the joint initiative with the Asheville Fire Department has been “up and running” since last fall, according to the police Public Information Officer Samantha Booth.

The previously unannounced surveillance method raises questions about privacy, legality and the public’s role in choosing how their community is policed.

In a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, senior policy analyst Jay Stanley warned the phenomenon is happening across the country, with 1,400 drone programs across the nation “beginning to proliferate with little oversight or accountability.”

In Asheville, a lack of transparency clouds the oversight process. Only after weeks of requests was Blue Ridge Public Radio able to obtain the basic information about the department, including the number of accredited pilots in the program and the policies governing it.

Despite being in place for nearly a year, the first public mention of the program by law enforcement came in a mid-June media interview with WYFF, according to Booth. A few days later, the police made the first public announcement of the program through a promotional video on the department’s Instagram page.

“We are thrilled to announce the launch of our brand-new Drone Unit here at the Asheville Police Department in joint effort with the Asheville Fire Department,” the post read.

The post went on to say that the “new cutting-edge aerial technology” would allow the department to “respond to emergency situations, efficiently survey large areas, and provide real-time support during critical incidents,” as well as “aid in search and rescue operations, traffic management, and crime scene investigations.”

Not listed on Instagram – or anywhere else on the department website or city website– were the policies governing the drone unit. The police department’s public records page does not list any drone policies, but BPR was able to obtain the records through an email request.

There have been no clear opportunities for public engagement, input or mentions of the drone program launch on any local public safety committee agenda, despite the department’s written policy requiring the drone unit’s program coordinator be responsible for “implementing a system for public notification of UAS [unmanned air system] deployment.”

The financial picture also remains blurry. BPR filed a public records request in late July and to date, no records have been produced regarding the amount of money spent on the drone program.

The situation in Asheville may not be dissimilar from other cities, according to Stanley.

“What we see all too often around the country is that police departments get a bag of money,” he explained in an interview. “And they just go out and buy highly controversial, brand-new surveillance technology and start using it without telling, let alone, asking the permission of the community that they serve.”

When asked directly if there were any opportunities for public input while launching the drone program, Booth replied by email that she was unable to answer the question, due to the police captain being “out of the office on vacation this week.”

Prior to 2015, a North Carolina state law required case-by-case approval for the use of drones at public safety agencies. The measure expired, and over the last eight years drone agencies have proliferated across the state in cities like Fayetteville, Winston Salem, Wilmington, Charlotte, and Waynesville.

In the report, Stanley argued police forces should not be able to deploy drone technology without community consent.

“It’s important that we don’t sleepwalk into a world of widespread aerial surveillance, that communities think very carefully about whether they want drone surveillance, and, if they decide to permit some operations, put in place guardrails that will prevent those operations from expanding,” he wrote.

Police say drones are a “force multiplier”

In Asheville, 15 police employees are certified to fly the drones while on duty, and the department owns six drones, according to Booth.

To get certified, pilots take a 40-hour class at A-B Tech Community College, which costs a little over $200. Pilots then undergo an additional eight hours of training.

Brandon Moore, captain of the police’s special services division, described the drones as a “force multiplier” to help fill staffing gaps.

“We had one of the highest percentages of loss in the country when it came to police officer resignations,” Moore said, when asked why the police wanted to build a drone unit.

“We needed something that could help tip the scale and quickly. Our hiring process is not quick. Replenishing officers is a slow methodical thing.”

Booth confirmed the need to supplement hiring, noting the department lost more than one-third of its 238 sworn officers.

Drones can serve as a set of eyes for an understaffed unit, Moore said.

On the most expensive model, the DJI Matrice 30T, as well as the lower tech machines, the camera is the primary feature.

It captures wide-angle, zoom, and thermal angles with a strong zoom feature. It cannot capture audio recordings, according to Moore (and the DJI website), but it can deliver audio messages that officers type into a receiver.

Most of the drones used by police are launched from the rooftop of the Municipal Building next to Pack Square Pack. The roof is manned by two people, two days a week for anywhere between four and six hours.

According to data supplied by the police department, 64% of calls for police service in Asheville happened within three miles of the Municipal Building and 44% happened within two miles.

“Putting a drone program here at this [Municipal Building] allows me to get to both of those sections,” Moore said.

Officers can also fly drones from the field, so long as they are accredited pilots and have a second person there as a visual observer to maintain a line of sight with the drone.

A drone can provide feedback to officers “sometimes within 30 seconds,” he said.

Due to the police’s ongoing staffing issues and the high volume of traffic in the downtown area, it can take officers as long as 15 minutes to respond to calls downtown, he said.

When Blue Ridge Public radio visited the Asheville Police Station, Sergeant Chris Byers presented video examples of how his unit has deployed drones.

In one case, Byers shared, the drone was able to home in on an individual who was thought to be holding a knife but was actually carrying a “wooden shiv.” The drone arrived at the scene within a few minutes, while the officer took about eight minutes to arrive, according to Byers.

“There's several calls for service [when] I've been able to cancel the responding officer,” Byers said. “There's so many calls that we've received that are just minimal information: subject screaming on corner. I can fly the drone over there, search the area. There's no one there. There's no need for an officer.”

An Asheville Fire Department pilot at the drone's command station.
BPR News
An Asheville Fire Department pilot at the drone's command station.

Fire department uses drones

The police are not the only agency using drones in Asheville. The fire department certified 11 drone pilots and acquired three drones, including two $600 Mavic Mini 2 Drones and one DJI Matrice M30 at a cost of $21,650, according to an email from department spokesperson Kelly Klope.

Like their police colleagues, the fire department did not ask the public for input before launching the program, according to spokesperson Beth Bechel, who explained the program as a form of “continuous improvement” for the department.

She described the drone unit as another strategy for responding to emergencies.

“There's been different opportunities where we’ve worked with different jurisdictions that had [drone units] and then we kind of just kept building and building off that.”

Interim Chief of the Asheville Fire Department Chris Budzinski praised the drone’s infrared technology, which he said helps his team locate missing persons, assess motor vehicle accidents, and gauge potential hot spots in a burning building.

“We have a considerable amount of calls for folks who have problems while they're floating a river and the drone helps us locate them faster and also give our responders a route to get to them that's easier than what we would typically do by foot,” Budzinksi said.

The camera also helps determine burn patterns in the aftermath of a fire, according to Jeremy Knighton, the department’s drone program manager.

“Overall, it just helps us to give us that alternative view that we've never had before to help us put together the pieces for whatever type of emergency it might be,” Knighton said.

“We're definitely wanting to be very slow and intentional with how we're rolling this program out,” he added. “I think we're going to increase efficiency, but mainly increase safety… Hopefully we're going to see things that prevent injury or see things where we're able to tie a resource to a need quickly.”

The legal limits of drone surveillance

Just like police body camera footage, the drone video footage is not public record in the state of North Carolina.

It “follows the same exact direction as our body cameras and our car camera. They go to Axon,” Moore said of the encrypted database used to store footage.

“Once it goes to Axon it's held for the required time that we have to keep law enforcement footage.” The threshold is 90 days for footage that doesn’t capture any criminal evidence.

A fire department spokesperson confirmed their footage also goes to Axon.

To access the footage, an individual or media outlet must file a complaint and obtain a court order.

Jeff Welty, professor of public law and government at Chapel Hill’s UNC School of Government, said there are two “different threads of the law” that place limits on how police can use drones.

The Fourth Amendment protects “people's privacy interests,” he explained. “Depending on how high a drone is flown and what part of a person's property it’s being used to look at, there might be Fourth Amendment limits on what a drone could do.”

Beyond that, there’s also state law – specifically, GS 15A-300.1 – that applies restrictions on how drones can be legally used.

“What the state law says is that law enforcement can't use drones without a warrant to conduct surveillance on private property.”

But according to Welty, the term “surveillance” isn't defined in the law and is subject to interpretation.

“There’s one line of thinking that surveillance is camping out with the drone and having it persistently observe what's happening at somebody's house,” he said. “And there’s another line of thinking that a shorter exposure to somebody's private property, their backyard, and so on might be a form of surveillance, albeit brief.”

There are no active cases challenging the use of drones as a surveillance tool, according to Welty, but he expects some to emerge in the next decade.

“The agency sort of takes the first crack at interpreting the law and applying it to its actual operations,” he explained. “We don't have a lot of case law sort of further filling in the gaps and the statute.”

There’s also a public safety “toolkit” from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that prohibits public safety officials from flying over people, at night without a waiver, or beyond a visual line of sight.

However, a 2022 amendment allows “routine operations over people and routine operations at night under certain circumstances,” such as special training and equipment.

According to Moore, the APD has already used the drones to supervise recent community gatherings, such as downtown Asheville’s Fourth of July celebration. He said they intend to implement drones for future downtown gatherings, including protests and parades.

Fire department’s drone manager Knighton shared a different perspective on permission and use.

“We have ways that we can communicate to ask for permission, but we're asking for permission. It's not something that just because we're in public safety we can break the rules. That's not a thing at all,” he said.” We have to be even more considerate and aware of those rules and regulations when we're flying.”

The fire department obtains permission for special missions by reaching out to the FAA.

"You can’t be over people — that’s another one of the requirements,” he said. “You can’t be over roadways. You have to be over buildings. There’s certain ways to navigate to be within the rules.”

The drone first responder command station on the roof of Asheville's Municipal Building.
BPR News
The drone first responder command station on the roof of Asheville's Municipal Building.

Where are drone departments headed?

Asheville police officials are taking steps to grow and expand the capabilities of the drone department.

Moore said his department is in the process of obtaining a BVLOS waiver that eliminates the “line of sight” requirement for its drone operations.

The waiver, which requires extensive paperwork to obtain, would allow the department to fly drones with an automated observer rather than a person, cutting the required staffing to fly a drone in half.

This move, if approved by the FAA, would also expand the radius of how far a drone could fly, since the pilot would no longer be limited by visual obstructions.

“What we're trying to do is minimize the use of that officer to make them readily available for what [the officers] actually are needed for,” Moore said.

He also expressed interest in purchasing more drones with longer battery life and flight times. At present, the unit’s best drone maxes out after about 40 minutes of flight time.

The drones currently in use have no audio capacity. Drones with listening and two-way speaker functions, for use in negotiations, also interest Moore.

“As a former negotiator on the team here, I think that's a game changer,” he said. “The question is always, ‘How do I talk to them? How do I get communication with this person?’”

As the use of drones by first responder units evolve in Asheville and across the country, Welty said community input should be part of the process.

“One background principle for policing is that you want to give citizens the kind of policing that they want, and if there's a technology that's being used in a way that most citizens disagree with then citizens ought to make that opinion known so that city officials and police department officials can take that public sentiment into account when they try to balance the benefits of a new technology against whatever privacy cost it comes with,” he said.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
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