Police chief defends use of drone during June BLM protest

Peaceful protestors hold signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on Park Square Green in Westfield on June 4, 2020. (MARC ST. ONGE/THE WESTFIELD NEWS)

WESTFIELD- Police Chief Lawrence P. Valliere responded to claims from a local Westfield resident alleging that the Westfield Police Department misused its police drone during the June 4 Black Lives Matter protest on the Park Square Green.

The allegations were detailed in a letter written by Trevor Eckhart published in The Westfield News on Oct. 21 and read on the record during the Oct. 1 remote City Council meeting by At-Large City Councilor Kristen Mello. 

Eckhart claimed that the operators of the police drone endangered the protesters and bystanders below, was violating the first amendment rights of the protesters, and was being flown out of the line of sight of the operators. 

Valliere said that the claims were unfounded, and provided documentation from the police department and a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigator that he said shows the drone was operated safely and without violating anybody’s civil rights. 

In regards to the claim that the civil rights of the protesters were being violated because of the usage of the drone, Valliere and Capt. Michael A. McCabe said that all large events that take place on the Park Square Green are monitored with the drone regardless of their political affiliation or lack thereof. 

“We have monitored many different events held at this location. This particular event was a protest. The deployment [of the drone] took place for one reason: situational awareness of the event,” said McCabe in a letter to Eckhart dated on Aug. 1., “There was no collection, use, retention, or dissemination of data in any manner that would violate the First Amendment, or in any manner that would discriminate against persons based on their ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

In Eckhart’s letter he also said that the FAA’s investigator called the drone operation careless and that it “caused undue risk to protesters and area residents’ safety.” 

In an email to Eckhart from Patrick Madden, an FAA inspector, Madden said that the flight path data depicted a flight path that was careless, but not reckless. 

“After a great deal of discussion among our Unmanned Flight Systems (UAS) experts it was determined that while not reckless the flight path depicted in that slide [sent by Eckhart] was somewhat careless,” said Madden in a Sept. 1 email to Eckhart, “The police department’s risk mitigation techniques were proactive and helpful (i.e. the mobile visual observer), however, operating in the area depicted presented undue risk to those below.”

Part of Eckhart’s complaint was that the drone operators flew the drone without having a visual line of sight on it for the duration of its deployment. Valliere said that the drone operators were flying the drone from on top of 15 Washington St., a tall building across from the police headquarters that would provide a great deal of visual range. 

The FAA inspector also noted the use of a visual observer. He said that an officer was in a vehicle below the drone, tailing it at all times to maintain a line of sight on it. The observer was equipped with a radio to remain in constant contact with the operators. Madden said that he could not find any evidence that federal regulations were violated.

Eckhart also claimed that the weather conditions that day provided an additional risk to the flying of a drone by the police. While there were clouds that day, the conditions frequently switched between sunny and cloudy, and there was no precipitation to speak of. Madden noted that the logged visibility for June 4, 2020 was 10 miles, and he provided the data that proves it. The temperature that day topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit near the beginning of the protest. 

Eckhart said in his letter that he was disappointed in how the Westfield Police Department handled his complaints. In response, Valliere provided The Westfield News with 18 pages of email correspondence between Eckhart, Valliere, McCabe, the Law Department, and the FAA from July 23 to Sept. 1. 

Valliere said that he would acknowledge and implement any recommendations by the FAA. 

“We will also look into the available technology that potentially makes drones safer. We appreciate all of your input and concern that will help make this program better,” said Valliere in a Sept. 1 email to Eckhart.

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