Letter: Concern about police drone use

To the Editor,

I wish to bring the public’s attention to a troubling issue regarding the Westfield Police Department’s use of drones to monitor a peaceful Black Lives Matter Protest on June 4th, 2020 at Park Square. Over 500 residents attended this protest, and public records confirm drone surveillance of the event. The area covered by the drone included Park Square and several residential streets down to West Silver Street.  This deployment demonstrated a disregard for established local policy and Federal Aviation law, and potentially raises broader privacy and First Amendment concerns. This is very concerning to me for many civil, legal, and safety reasons.

First, the deployment violated the Department’s own policies.  The “Westfield Police Department Policy, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” enacted November 2019, states data will not be collected “solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution.” For those unaware, enterprise level drones are essentially a sophisticated flying camera. Live video is constantly being recorded and sent back to the operator, regardless of whether video is saved.  Peaceful protest is protected under the First Amendment, so deployment of drones to monitor the June 4th protest is a direct violation of Department policy.  Department policy also states that the public should be notified about drone flights except where officer safety is involved.  Public records show over several dozen logged flights in addition to those on June 4th may have violated this policy.

Second, independent examination by the Federal Aviation Administration confirms that the Police Department’s June 4th operation was careless and caused undue risk to protestors’ and area residents’ safety.  Although FAA safety regulations are complex, there are 3 important rules every drone operator must know to be certified:  1) Do not fly over people; 2) Do not fly anywhere the drone would cause harm if it falls; and 3) Do not fly beyond the line of sight. My research leads me to believe that all of these flight basics were broken during that day.  It is revealing that FAA drone experts looking at the same information also concluded the Department’s flight path was unsafe and reached out to the Department for corrective action.

Third, the Police Department’s responsiveness to these concerns has been disappointing. When I presented the department with the exact FAA safety laws which were broken my complaint was brushed off.  When the FAA was presented with the same facts, they were easily able to spot the violation.  This has led me to believe that the Westfield Police did not take my complaint seriously.

Finally, I believe the Department’s use of drones implicates additional privacy and First Amendment concerns that current internal policies do not adequately address.  I am currently working with the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic to research these issues and potential mitigation strategies, since this area of the law can be difficult to navigate with respect to newer technology. I plan to submit more on these issues at a later time.

To address the above problems, I have asked Westfield City Council to consider several actions to protect our civil liberties.

  1. Investigate the Department’s drone use in more detail and hold the Department accountable to its current policies.
  2. Research and enact new Westfield City Ordinances on all drone use, potentially modeled after those enacted in Newton and Chicopee to preserve privacy and property rights.
  3. Establish future accountability for drone and other civil liberties violations by ensuring that all public grievances against the department are investigated by an independent board. The board should consist of both civilians and officers.
I am asking that everyone writes their counselor as well to support above actions – https://www.cityofwestfield.org/122/City-Council
I have published more information including the public records on my website at https://trevoreckhart.com/2020/08/04/westfield-ma-complaint-regarding-drones-at-protest/


Trevor Eckhart

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