Six years after Maine passed regulations on police departments’ use of drones, few departments have adopted a tool that some once saw as the future of law enforcement.
Only nine out of the 163 law enforcement agencies in Maine have drones, according to a 2020 report from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Six are municipal police agencies (the Brunswick, Hampden, Lewiston, Old Orchard Beach, Scarborough and Windham police departments). The others are the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, Maine Forest Service and Maine State Police.
With the ability to capture live images in the air quickly, surveillance drones could have significant law enforcement capability. Proponents point to their successful use in search and rescue missions, including in rescuing people from the recent collapse of a Miami-area condominium, and argue that regulations can prevent potential violations of privacy.
Yet some see drones’ high tech capability as a potential violation of civil liberties, with opponents saying their HD cameras could reach into the private lives of citizens in ways police departments have never been capable of.
Maine regulated the use of drones among police departments through a law signed by then-Gov. Paul LePage in 2015. That law permitted departments to establish drone programs with trained operators but placed several restrictions on their use to ensure privacy rights, including a prohibition on their use for surveillance of peaceful, free-speech demonstrations.
It also required that the drone policy adopted by the Board of Trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy would restrict use of high-powered zoom lenses, thermal imaging and surveillance of individuals not under investigation.
The law also required that departments report on how they’re using their drones.
Maine is average in terms of public safety agencies with drones adjusted for population, according to a 2020 report from the defunct Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
That report found the number of agencies newly adopting drones peaked in 2017 before falling in 2018 and 2019. New Hampshire, with a similar population to Maine’s, had 13 in 2019, while North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin had the most agencies with drones per capita.
The Bangor Police Department is in the early stages of discussing whether to create a drone program, though there is no timeline for its creation, Lt. Tim Cotton said.
The only municipal police department in Penobscot County to have a drone program is Hampden, where the Hampden Town Council unanimously authorized the department to purchase a drone in October 2020.
While the department’s drone policy allows its use in law enforcement, the town particularly wanted a drone so police could use it in search and rescue efforts, Hampden police Chief Chris Bailey said.
“It’s really based on the ability to have another tool available,” Bailey said.
The department first used the drone in December 2020 to inspect a gravel pit after it was reported vandalized. Its second use was in an attempt to locate a man who was said to be suicidal in a wooded area at night.
Other departments have used drones for a variety of reasons, including to map the scene of a double homicide (which the Maine State Police did in 2019), to photograph timber theft (the Maine Forest Service in 2020) and to investigate alleged illegal drug activity (Brunswick police in 2020). Multiple agencies have also used them to try to locate fleeing suspects.
Bailey said it was unclear to him why so few departments in Maine had adopted drones. It might be because of a lack of understanding of their abilities or for financial reasons, he said.
“I think it’s up to those individual communities and departments to evaluate the need,” Bailey said.
Drones vary widely in price. The most powerful ones, primarily used by the military, cost millions of dollars, but recent advancements in technologies have allowed drones with HD cameras to be available for under $100. Hampden’s cost $3,725.
The main concern with drone use is the potential to violate citizens’ privacy, said American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede.
“Being watched is an inherently threatening exercise and restricts our freedom,” Kebede said, noting that people had an expectation of privacy in private places like their backyards. “Letting drones throughout society threatens that expectation.”
While it was unclear to Kebede why drones were not widely used by Maine law enforcement agencies, he said that it could be related to the state leading the way in privacy protections.
He noted that Maine had some of the country’s strongest internet privacy laws (which the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine lobbied for) and that a bill to regulate facial recognition technology by police was rapidly moving through the Maine Legislature.
The American Civil Liberties Union sees drones as being a valuable tool in a narrow set of cases, including search and rescue, Kebede said.
“We’re not pure Luddites. We recognize that technology can sometimes be our friends,” Kebede said. “We just think that it’s important to establish rules and boundaries.”