'Not for surveillance': Vancouver police promise limits on drone program
Update, Sept. 19: Vancouver's Police Board has approved the drone program, according to Chief Adam Palmer on Twitter. The original story follows.
As Vancouver police reveal details of a drone program they're presenting to the Vancouver Police Board later this week, a senior member of the force is pledging the aerial video-gathering will be limited in scope with clear guidelines.
Supt. Steve Eely outlined details in the procedure manual for the Remotely Piloted Aerial System program for reporters Tuesday, insisting officers will not use the high-definition cameras on the drones for so-called "fishing expeditions," where the devices would fly around looking for people breaking the law.
"For peaceful protest there will be no use of drones because we respect people's right to free speech and the right to protest, so that's something that's not on the table," said Eely. "When we go to a large-scale event like Celebration of Light where you have hundreds of thousands of people in a small area we're thinking public safety and officer safety, so it would not be used for surveillance purposes at all; it's meant for documenting potential criminal activity."
The Vancouver Police Department has bought three drones for potential use in daily operations.
Eely added that every serious car crash could be documented and assessed from the air, making for shorter road closures and the ability to create 3D models of the scene for investigative purposes and to support court cases. He added that searching for missing persons in areas like Stanley Park could be assisted with the use of infrared FLIR cameras on board the largest of three drones the force has already purchased, largely with the use of Vancouver Police Foundation funds.
"There are 17 police agencies that already deploy drone programs across Canada," said Eely, pointing out the VPD had taken a wait-and-see approach. "We did want to allow the technology to evolve and over time that technology cost has come down considerably but also Transport Canada was in the process of finalizing their regulatory scheme-work and that really came into formation and was implemented in June of this year."
The VPD's submission to the police board, which must approve the program for the drones to go into use, includes a letter from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which does not give full approval and notes, "the potential use of RPAS for surveillance is a concern."
But policy analyst Julie Downs goes on to say, "My understanding is that the VPD's proposed policy does not allow for random surveillance except in exigent circumstances where there is an imminent risk to life or safety and with permission of the Duty Officer or designate."
The OIPC notes that the access to information and video collected includes "reasonable security provisions" under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, with a commitment the VPD will destroy information without evidentiary value after 30 days.
"We realize that this is the future and technology makes a lot more options available so that we can find people more quickly; we can record scenes of crimes in a less expensive way; we can search for suspects without having a police officer in a helicopter – that all makes sense from a public safety perspective, however, there's always a concern about surveillance creep and about people using cameras that could record very intimate stuff," said BC Civil Liberties Association lawyer Meghan McDermott.
While she praised the VPD for taking a proactive approach to openly discussing the limitations of the drone program and addressing several issues faced by other police forces, McDermott has concerns that the scope of the policy may not anticipate issues, like which members of the VPD staff can and should have access to what can be intimate and personal evidence near or even in their homes.
"One thing we'd really like to see is public reporting on a consistent basis so that we can continue to trust the police and so that they're not using this new surveillance technology in a way they shouldn't be," she said.
Drones already widely used by law enforcement
If approved Thursday, the Vancouver police will be relative latecomers to the drone game.
The RCMP told CTV News it has 70 drones of varying sizes and capabilities in use throughout the province and that a drone is deployed by Mounties in B.C. on average once a day.
Abbotsford Police became the first municipal police force in Lower Mainland to use unmanned aerial vehicles last year. They're currently recruiting new officers to undergo training under Transport Canada's rigorous new requirements, which come after the APD's own restrictions for the devices' use.
"We will assist patrol and be eyes in the sky for patrol, but we're not looking in people's backyards," said RPAS Program Coordinator, Cst. Rob Hryhorczuk. "We're not searching randomly it's all file-based."
Hryhorczuk is making his first court appearance to present evidence specifically tied to a drone deployment in the coming weeks.
Implementation in Vancouver
If approved by the Vancouver Police Board, the 17 officers currently being trained to operate the RPAS could deploy the devices by the end of the year.
And while their guidelines set out specific rules for deployment, Eely acknowledges that exceptional circumstances could override those rules with the approval of a judge and the issuance of a court order.
"We believe we're operating lawfully and in the interest of public safety at all times," he said. "If there's a need for judicial authorization we're certainly going to go down that road as well."