By Simon Willis
According to the 911 call, the men were smoking marijuana. There were five of them, all black, standing together one spring morning in a car park in Brookhaven, an affluent suburb of Atlanta. In other parts of America, weed is perfectly legal. But not in the state of Georgia, where possession is a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. The caller gave the police the location of the car park and descriptions of the men. Less than a minute later the cops had found them – from an altitude of 400 feet.
They were located by a small quadcopter called a Matrice 300 RTK, one of two such devices operated by the Brookhaven police department. Police drones are becoming more common in the skies above American cities: according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit that tracks police technology, almost 1,200 forces now have them. Many are used for specialised tasks like crime-scene documentation or reconnaissance during armed stand-offs. But Brookhaven is one of only 16 American police departments using drones as first responders. Whenever a 911 call comes in, or an officer radios for back-up, they send out a copter. More often than not, it arrives ahead of the humans.
The caller gave the police the location of the car park and descriptions of the men. Less than a minute later the cops had found them – from an altitude of 400 feet
At the controls that day was Lieutenant Abrem Ayana, a portly cop in his late 30s and the leader of Brookhaven’s investigations unit. He was operating the device from police headquarters, a mile up the road. When the drone arrived at the scene, it began to beam live footage from its high-definition camera directly to Ayana’s computer screen. He zoomed in for a close-up of the men, who were unaware that they were being watched.
He monitored the suspects for several minutes while a patrol officer in a squad car made his way towards the scene. Ayana saw the men standing beside their SUV. He saw them chatting, maybe exchanging a few jokes. But what he didn’t see them do was smoke – not so much as a cigarette.
Ayana radioed his colleague and advised him to keep his distance. The squad car stopped on the far side of a building, well out of sight of the group. As far as Ayana could tell, no law was being broken. There was no reason for an officer to engage.
One morning I joined Ayana on the roof of a 17-storey apartment building that serves as a launch site for Brookhaven’s drones. He was fitting fresh batteries into one of the Matrice 300s – affectionately known as “Karen”, he explained, “cos she gonna be all up in your business”. With us was Sergeant Matt Murray, the drone pilot on duty. When a call came in, Murray, who was sheltering from the sunshine under a gazebo, leapt towards a tripod mounted with controls and switched the drone on. Karen, with her rotor blades buzzing, rose from the roof and headed out on patrol.
Ayana began developing the drone programme in the summer of 2020, amid the outrage that followed the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a cop, in Minneapolis. Passersby filmed Floyd’s death on their phones – evidence which galvanised protests against police brutality and eventually helped prosecutors convict Chauvin of murder. Ayana was demoralised by the anti-police rhetoric on America’s streets, but he was convinced that his profession had to “take a step back to evaluate how we’re responding to calls, especially those when they just call because the person is black”. (Ayana is himself black.)
He sees two advantages in drone technology. First, it offers another way to document encounters between the police and the public. Body cameras are mandatory for officers in Brookhaven, but they have their limits: you cannot see what the officer wearing the camera is doing. From their Olympian perspective, drones add another viewpoint.
Advocates of police drones often tout dramatic stories – armed robbers apprehended after being filmed on the run, stolen cars followed down the freeway – but the vast majority of flights are mundane
Second, Ayana views drones as a “de-escalation strategy”. As with his flight over the carpark, drones can help cops decide which 911 calls merit intervention. What’s more, the devices’ overhead perspective can furnish officers with information about whether, for example, a suspect is armed or aggressive before the police even arrive on the scene. Determining when to use force requires judgment, and there are few formal protocols to guide officers. “There couldn’t be,” Ayana says, pointing to the Supreme Court decision that established the vague legal standard of “objective reasonableness”. The justices acknowledged that “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.” Drones, Ayana says, make policing less of a “guessing game”.
On the roof we watched as the Matrice 300 raced out over the trees, past the golden arches of a McDonald’s drive-thru, and came to a hover over Peachtree Road, Brookhaven’s main thoroughfare. From its vantage point nearly 350 feet (107 metres) above the street, the drone transmitted live footage to the iPad mounted to the tripod.
Advocates of police drones often tout dramatic stories – armed robbers apprehended after being filmed on the run, stolen cars followed down the freeway – but the vast majority of flights are mundane. This morning’s sortie was a case in point. An officer had stopped a red SUV with an expired number plate. Despite the banality of the misdemeanour, Murray started scanning for possible threats. After checking the area below the drone to make sure it could perform an emergency landing without decapitating a passing pedestrian, he zoomed in on the driver’s window – just in case he was “doing bad things, hiding things, digging around”. Then he zoomed out again to look for potential assailants approaching on foot.
As the officer got out of his squad car to deal with the SUV’s driver, Murray’s vigilance – or depending on your perspective, paranoia – subsided. He reassured his colleague: no suspicious behaviour. After issuing the driver with a verbal warning, the officer sent them on their way.
To civil-liberties campaigners, the idea of a police officer surveilling people from above is a dystopian nightmare. Indeed, American police forces have a poor record of respecting citizens’ right to privacy. In 2016 the Baltimore Police Department started a scheme – kept secret from both local government and residents – that involved aircraft flying over the city for ten hours a day, recording everything below. The drones were powered by technology originally developed to track insurgents during the Iraq war. A group of activists, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a lawsuit against the department, arguing that filming innocent people as they went about their business violated their privacy. A federal appeals court ruled that the programme was unconstitutional, and the drone was grounded.
For his own initiative, Ayana sought advice from Jay Stanley, a policy analyst at the ACLU in Washington, DC. Stanley’s input helped Ayana shape arguably the most moderate police-drone programme in America. Unlike Baltimore’s aircraft, Brookhaven’s machines won’t fly unless an emergency is reported. Their cameras won’t film, or even point down, until they are at the scene. All footage is destroyed after 30 days unless it is being used in a criminal investigation or for training purposes, and all the flight logs are public.
Many civil-liberties defenders and concerned citizens maintain that these eyes in the sky are an unnecessary new weapon in the arsenal of a profession that is already excessively resourced
The Brookhaven city council is meant to hold the programme to these standards. Its members include Madeleine Simmons, a civil-litigation lawyer who represented Floyd’s family in their civil case against the city of Minneapolis and helped prosecutors prepare for Derek Chauvin’s criminal trial. She is convinced that “the drone provides another safeguard for the community.” Although the data on de-escalation vary widely between police departments, some do suggest that drones can have a positive effect. “From a social justice perspective,” Simmons says, if a drone is filming “it helps hone in on the specific perpetrator, rather than just ‘a black man in a white T-shirt’.” In 2021, the council approved the programme and agreed to fund it at $800,000 a year.
Many civil-liberties defenders and concerned citizens maintain that these eyes in the sky are an unnecessary new weapon in the arsenal of a profession that is already excessively resourced. Despite his contributions to Brookhaven’s drone policy, Stanley remains concerned about drones as a tool for routine police work. “There is a question of proportionality,” he says, pointing out that not all 911 calls report emergencies. (The police in Chula Vista, California, operate a drone programme similar to Brookhaven’s – and as in Brookhaven, they record the reason behind every flight. One entry in the log says simply, “Subject bouncing a ball against a garage”.)
For every scheme like Brookhaven’s, there are several less careful ones springing up. Given the paucity of federal or state regulation governing how the police employ their drones, forces can make up their own rules – leading to what Dave Maass, director of investigations at the EFF, calls a “Wild West” of police surveillance. In Beverly Hills, a glitzy enclave of Los Angeles, the police have a drone called “Hawkeye” that circles overhead seven days a week. They call this strategy “pre-crime” – which sounds like a line from “Minority Report”, the Orwellian film in which people get arrested before they’ve committed an offence.
Back on the roof, the morning continued uneventfully. At one point there was a flurry of excitement – an alert about a stolen car picked up by a camera that reads licence plates. Murray fired up the drone and sent it to follow the vehicle, but before it had caught up he was instructed to bring it back to base: the camera had misread, and the car wasn’t stolen at all. Aside from a few more traffic stops, there was little to do. (“That’s policing,” Murray said. “Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.”)
For those worried about the rise of omniscient machines, the drone’s fragility may offer some comfort
Perhaps it was just as well there was so little action on the streets of Brookhaven. The wind was beginning to pick up, and as Murray explained, Brookhaven’s drones can’t fly if it’s too windy, or too cold, or too wet. On hot days, the iPads expend so much energy keeping themselves cool that Murray can’t recharge them quickly enough to keep the drones in the air.
For those worried about the rise of omniscient machines, the drone’s fragility may offer some comfort. Back in his office, Ayana showed me a video of a stand-off with a kidnapper holed up in a house in the adjacent county. As a drone flew into the house to locate the man, it upended a laundry basket and was brought down by a pile of dirty clothes. ■
Simon Willis is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He has previously written for 1843 magazine about the director Pablo Larraín and the future of skiing
ILLUSTRATIONS MARK SMITH