What can police officers do if a drone is determined to be a threat? Threats from these devices are not limited to complaints of low-flying drones, but include danger to commercial airliners, government buildings and correctional facilities, to name a few. There are approximately 100 close calls or sightings every month between commercial airliners and drones.
Unfortunately, there's not much an officer can do when faced with a drone threat because there is no simple solution to disabling a drone.
Shooting down a drone, for example, is illegal as well as reckless. While many people believe drones are toys, the government makes it clear that they are classified as aircraft and therefore cannot be shot down. According to U.S. Code 18 USC § 32 (a), the destruction of aircraft can result in being fined and imprisoned for up to 20 years. It is also dangerous for officers to attempt shooting down a drone as errant rounds fired at the device could harm others or, upon striking the device, could cause it to crash uncontrollably and injure those on the ground.
Another often-discussed solution to disabling a drone is to jam its radio frequency. However, this too is illegal and there is no exception that allows law enforcement to break this federal law. The Communications Act of 1934 prohibits anyone from manufacturing, importing, marketing, selling or operating any jamming devices within the U.S. (47 U.S.C. § 302a(b)).
Finally, some suggest using a drone to capture another drone, midair. However, those who have actually operated a drone recognize the futility and danger involved with this approach. Also, there is the risk of a transfer of liability. If someone intercepts a drone, that person is now responsible and liable for both devices.
Detecting drones is challenging as well. The FAA is currently working with several companies to develop and test drone-detection equipment that can locate drones and operators. The FAA is mostly concerned with drones interfering with commercial and passenger aircraft, so much of its work is focused on airports. The hope is that such technology can use sensors at various locations around an airport to triangulate the location of the drone's signals.
The Six Steps of Law Enforcement Response
The FAA has attempted to address concerns by issuing a law enforcement response document that outlines a six-step plan for how police should respond to a drone-related incident. These steps include:
- Witness identification and interviews
- Identification of operators
- Viewing and recording the location of the event
- Identifying sensitive locations, events, or activities
- Notification procedures
- Evidence collection
The intention is that these steps provide guidance for agencies to develop standard operating procedures (SOP) regarding drone response. A SOP should include the immediate actions officers need to take and whom they should notify when dealing with drones. Such response may include locating and contacting the drone operator and educating him or her about the safe operation of drones.
Officers could also report and forward information about the incident and the operator to the FAA and/or the National Transportation Safety Board. If the incident is deemed serious or potentially criminal in nature, officers may choose to take the operator into custody for further investigation. All of these steps should be outlined in an agency's operating procedure.
One of the outstanding problems for police remains the issue of jurisdiction. When police respond to a traditional criminal incident or complaint, officers follow jurisdictional policies and procedures that correspond to municipal, county, state and federal laws. However, during the investigation of a drone complaint, the jurisdiction can be unknown: It is unclear what agency should respond to a drone-related incident.
Training the Public in an Effort to Seek Compliance
One way police can attempt to mitigate issues with drones is by educating the public about FAA regulations. Drone operators, particularly hobbyists, often do not know or understand the FAA's rules. Police agencies should work to educate and partner with citizens and other community stakeholders so that everyone is on the same page. Conducting educational outreach to stakeholders such as local airports, schools and other organizations can aid in drone compliance and a better understanding of the rules and regulations.
Such an outreach effort will need to be done on a continuous basis in line with the FAA's efforts to issue piecemeal rules and regulations regarding drone operation. Since the number of drones is only expected to dramatically increase, it is incumbent upon police agencies to prepare their officers to address situations involving these unmanned aerial devices in the best way.
About the Author: Anthony Galante is a former SWAT officer and retired law enforcement officer with more than 10 years of dedicated service. He is a commercial pilot and holds a Master of Aeronautical Science degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and is a graduate of American Military University (M.A. Homeland Security, M.A. Criminal Justice). Galante is currently an assistant professor with American Military University. He may be contacted at [email protected].