Ore. police add drones to investigatory tools; audit urges surveillance safeguards


By Nick Gibson


PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Police Bureau on Thursday unveiled a fleet of drones that officers say will help them document crash scenes, locate fugitives and respond to emergencies such as bomb threats and active shooters.

The Portland City Council approved the bureau’s use of drones in a yearlong pilot program in April, allocating $80,000 to the bureau to buy 12 drones to help the Traffic Division and Metro Explosive Disposal Unit. The fleet’s arrival comes the same week as City Auditor Simone Rede found the bureau had not fully addressed security concerns outlined in her review of the bureau’s use of surveillance technology during Portland’s mass racial justice protests in 2020.

Portland Police Sgt. Jim DeFrain, who’s overseeing the technology, said the drones will be used primarily to reconstruct traffic accidents and crime scenes. To use the drones in searches or emergencies such as an active shooter, officers will need approval from the police chief’s office. A commanding officer will also oversee their use.

The drones cannot be used for mass surveillance, facial recognition, harassing people and managing crowds under Oregon statutes governing aircraft operation rules. In 2020, the Portland City Council approved one of the strictest bans on the use of facial recognition software in the country.

The bureau will need approval from the city council to continue the program after the yearlong pilot ends next spring. Data related to use of the drones during the trial will be published periodically on the bureau’s website, DeFrain said.

DeFrain said the drones will help officers clear crash scenes faster. Until now, officers relied on time-consuming and inefficient laser systems or hand measurements to map out scenes during investigations, DeFrain said.

“This thing has proven to de-escalate situations, it’s proven to get streets opened faster and it’s proven to help the community in those things that are most annoying,” DeFrain said. “Nobody wants to be waiting at 5 o’clock in the afternoon while we have I-5 closed down for a traffic crash.”

The program is part of the bureau’s Specialized Resources Division and employs 16 certified drone pilots from the Traffic Division, the Air Support Unit and the Focused Intervention Team.

The auditor’s review of the bureau’s surveillance tools, published in April of last year, found the bureau lacked proper guidelines for officers when using surveillance technology, resulting in officers gathering and keeping information based on their own discretion. Officers collected personal information and social media posts about lawful demonstrators, which is prohibited under Oregon law.

Rede’s update to the audit this week found the bureau has made some progress by adopting a policy that provides guidance on who can access sensitive information related to a criminal case and how those records are kept.

Nearly every law enforcement agency within the Portland metro area uses drones, DeFrain said.

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