Philly considering drones for community policing

Philadelphia already uses drones on a limited basis. Officials heard testimony from cops from other cities on how they are using drones to fight crime.

Drones are displayed on a table

Philadelphia City Council explores the use of drones in policing. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

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Philadelphia City Council held a rare hearing to talk about the benefits of using drones to fight crime. The unmanned flying machines hovered in the chamber demonstrating their prowess.

The city and the school district already have a limited drone program. Friday’s hearing involved testimonies from police officials from other cities, which have employed drones to improve public safety.

Roxana Kennedy, the police chief of Chula Vista, CA., spoke about her department’s drone program, which she says has reduced police response time and given officers key information before they arrive on the scene of an incident. The program costs more than a million dollars annually.

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“Twenty-three percent of our calls were able to clear without a uniformed officer responding in a patrol car,” Kennedy said. “ On average our response time for the drone to be first on scene is a minute and a half.”

Abrem Ayana runs the UAS program for the Brookhaven, Georgia police department, said his department has been used as a national model for drone-based policing.

Ayana said Brookhaven is a city that spreads across 12 square miles and has 65,000 residents. The police department uses consumer drones with high-powered cameras and flies them for about 30 minutes at 30-40 mph in a 3-mile radius from their launch locations. They target the highest 911 call volume areas, but not the highest crime neighborhoods.

Ayana said the drones are not being used for “proactive policing” but rather to assist officers on the ground.

That strategy saves the police from potential controversies and accusations about targeting communities of color or neighborhoods with residents with low incomes, he said.

“We don’t have to have that conversation because we placed our drone specifically in areas where people call 911,” Ayana said.

For years the city of Philadelphia has been building up a fixed camera system with officials monitoring from a central location. City Council President Darrell Clarke said he wanted to hold the hearing to ensure a thorough review before potentially considering expansion of the existing drone program.

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Deputy Commissioner Frank Healy told council members that his department is open to new and innovative technology that would help fight crime without infringing on residents’ constitutional rights and privacy.

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