Winona County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota faces scrutiny from the public after purchasing a new drone for $5,929, resulting in the county’s board ordering a review of the sheriff’s office drones’ usage.
Last fall, the sheriff’s office purchased a new drone for $5,929, adding to its three-drone fleet, which by law must be followed by a public hearing to allow the public to have their say on the new drone and point out anything they see important.
The sheriff’s office must now review its drone policy, take the public’s comments into account, and present its findings to the county board at the end of the month to decide if anything needs to be changed.
At the public hearing, most people scrutinized the drone’s purchase, with many stating privacy and surveillance worries, even though the sheriff’s office reassured that it doesn’t use its drones to watch over people in that way.
Michael Abdoo, a resident of Winona, said:
This technology can easily be abused by an operator or the department. And by easily abused, I mean that if they flew over my house on a training mission and I happened to be having sex with my wife, they would be able to tell.
Many also brought up previous drone usage by departments around the state, linking it back to drones being used at Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Another incident involved a police drone reportedly watched a nude sunbathing woman.
Another resident added:
While this public hearing revolves around the purchase and use of a drone, my concerns extend further, as Winona, like the country, has experienced increased surveillance, policing, and incarceration.
The sheriff’s office stated that the drone actually didn’t cost it or the county any money as it was bought with insurance money from a previously damaged drone that was donated. The community now wants to know who donated the drone to understand the intentions behind it better.
Ray Sylvester, president of the county’s Search Operations Assistance and Rescue (SOAR) team, shared on the contrary:
It all depends on the people that are operating it. I know the deputies that are actually running the machine, and I believe in them. I don’t think there’s going to be any issues with these guys at all, as long as they have the support of the community.
Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller also supported the officers:
[Saving lives is] the reason that we got this drone, that’s the reason that we want the drone, that’s the reason that we want to continue to pursue having this program.
Photo: Mitch Nielsen