Winnipeg police want to join the growing ranks of law enforcement agencies across Canada adding drones to their arsenal of crime-fighting tools.
The City of Winnipeg issued a tender for the purchase of a drone — or remotely piloted aircraft system, as Transport Canada and some police forces prefer to call them — at the request of the Winnipeg Police Service.
“We can do things with a drone that we simply can’t, currently,” said Winnipeg police spokesperson Const. Rob Carver.
The tender lays out a number of specifications Winnipeg police would like their drone to have, such as video and thermal imaging cameras, GPS technology, and the ability to turn off all lights.
Police forces across Canada use drones for a wide variety of purposes, including taking aerial images of traffic collisions or crime scenes, searching for missing people, and identifying suspects in connection to an incident.
Winnipeg’s drone would be equipped with a loudspeaker, which could help police guide a lost person out of danger, and avoid the need for an exhaustive ground search, Carver said. It could also be used to get close to hazardous materials or disaster scenes without putting personnel at risk.
Currently, 17 police forces across Canada — including the RCMP, Toronto Police Service, and Ontario Provincial Police — have adopted drone technology, many of them within the last year.
On Thursday, the Vancouver Police Board approved a policy to begin using three drones for police operations within that city.
Transport Canada revised its regulations for drone operators in June, which the Vancouver police cited as the reason for bringing its drone proposal forward now.
The new federal rules restrict drone usage around airports and in emergency situations, and drone operators also have to take a certification test and register their drones. There are currently 360,000 licensed drones in Canada.
As the use of drones increases, privacy advocates have raised concerns about the potential social impacts the technology could have.
“The question isn’t, could these things be useful to police? It should be, what are the risks of police specifically having control over this technology?” said Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, a professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Winnipeg.
Drones not for surveillance, police say
Although Winnipeg’s policies for using the drone are still in its early draft stages, Const. Carver said its primary purpose will be for traffic collision reconstruction and search are rescue operations, not surveillance.
“And if it was, it would require the same sort of judicial authorization we would for any sort of surveillance,” he said.
Other police forces that use drones have also tried to assure the public that they won’t have eyes in the sky watching their every move.
“We can’t do surveillance work with the device because it is noisy,” said Insp. Sharon Havill of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, which began using its drone in April 2018. “That myth that we can fly around and spy on people is a challenge because you know you can hear the device flying,” she said.
In order to alert people when the drone is being used, Waterloo Regional Police Service posts a message on Twitter and puts up signs wherever it’s is flying, unless there is a public safety reason not to, Havill said.
While presenting the Vancouver police drone policy to the board for approval, Staff Sgt. Don Chapman said that if police planned to used their drone for surveillance, Transport Canada would not issue a licence.
“Transport Canada will inquire as to what the end user intends to use their RPAS for, if the end user was to state that surveillance was one of the RPAS function, Transport Canada would not authorize a license as they do not want to see RPAS being used for surveillance purposes,” a Vancouver police spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
Critic questions police transparency
Those assurances don’t convince critics like Dobchuk-Land, who sees the adoption of drone technology as part of a wider trend in policing toward data collection and analysis, and tracking the activity of people who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
“In the context of their move toward proactive policing and intelligence gathering, there’s a lot of reason to believe that the police will want to use this technology to aid in surveillance and information gathering,” she said.
The Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service already has a drone, which the police sometimes have access to. This makes Dobchuk-Land question whether buying a drone is the best way to address concerns about crime and safety.
“This kind of technology … should only be in the hands of organizations who are able to be fully transparent and accountable to the public about their use, and the police are not that kind of organization.”
The City of Winnipeg tender doesn’t specify a price for the drone, but Carver says the funds would come from a pool of money held by the province through civil forfeitures, not from the general police budget.
Although it isn’t meant to replace the police helicopter, Carver says it could “augment” some of its uses. The drone can fly lower and around objects more easily than the helicopter, making it more useful in some circumstances.
Once the drone is purchased, the Winnipeg Police Service will release more information about it and hold a public demonstration some time in the next few weeks, Carver said.