Pricey Pittsburgh police drones grounded on fears of negative public reaction

drones police Pittsburgh

Law enforcement agencies have been among the many public service and business entities that have used drones to improve their operations, but police in Pittsburgh are reportedly still sitting on a $62,000 unused UAV investment due to concerns about negative public reaction to the craft.

According to a report this week by local television station WPXI, police in Pittsburgh have yet to power on two DJI  drones bought in 2018 for over $50,000 after authorities worried that city residents might think the craft were being deployed to monitor them. In addition to the expensive hardware still idling on storage shelves, nearly $12,000 in pilot training is going unused.

Perhaps just as curious as the authorization and procurement of police drones that have since been grounded, meanwhile, is the report’s finding that Pittsburgh’s finest have deployed UAVs they’ve borrowed from other Pennsylvania law enforcement agencies in critical situations like search and rescue and suicide prevention operations. 

Pennsylvania State Police alone use their 23 drones that are used in potentially violent confrontations, collecting crime scene data, and other documentation missions.

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The reasons given for the intentional neglect of Pittsburgh’s pricy police drone assets featured jargon of these politically riven times.

“The main concerns were obviously, you know, people always concerned about privacy, government overreach,” Lee Schmidt, the city’s public safety director told WPXI. “We wanted to make sure the policy was in place to make it very clear that this was only used for search purposes, not for surveillance or law enforcement purposes.”

Such are the fears, suspicions, and swiftly shouted accusations of these fraught times, it seems, that a $62,000 drone investment for Pittsburgh police won’t be used for “law enforcement purposes.” 

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The former public safety director who purchased the drones, by contrast, told the station original plans had called for Pittsburgh police to use the craft during armed standoffs, observing or pursuing suspects in crimes, and other situations where closer or elevated visuals can change outcomes. 

Apparently shortly after procurement, however, municipal officials became concerned about citizens thinking the craft were being deployed for general surveillance of anyone beneath them, and ordered policy guidelines to be approved before deployment. Then came COVID-19, and the craft dropped from attention. 

Pittsburgh City Council officials interviewed admitted they were not aware the police drones were gathering dust, and said they needed to establish use rules to avoid another form of public backlash: wasting taxpayer money on unused equipment. Schmidt told the station that will not be the case with the police drones.

“The drones… this model is actually still sold, utilized,” he said, adding that he hopes the craft may get the all-clear for deployment before the end of the year. “We do maintain and update them.” 

Photo: WPXI

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