The Houston Police Department is researching how it may use drones, according to HPD officials.
"It's a technology that we’ve talked about and have been looking into for the last couple of months," HPD assistant chief Matt Slinkard said in a phone interview. "But no hard, concrete research has been produced yet about how we may try to use the technology in the future if we do choose to use it. We currently do not have any drones at use in HPD, and we have not had any. For a long time we have not really looked at the technology as anything we’ve wanted to use. But in recent years, the technology has become more commonplace...and it’s definitely something that we want to stay knowledgeable about."
HPD is the latest law enforcement agency to consider using unmanned aircraft for policing. In Texas, the Arlington Police Department purchased a drone and received authorization to operate it from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013, and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office bought a drone in 2011, crashed it during a training exercise in 2014, then bought a new one the next year. Earlier this week, police in South Padre Island announced they had added two drones to monitor spring break crowds.
Slinkard was adamant that HPD does not currently have any drones, has not made any requests to purchase drone technology and is only in the "beginning stages" of researching drones. Still, Slinkard seemed to have a pretty clear vision of just how HPD might use a drone if it ever decides to get one.
"Where we would look to see if in the future we have some utility for this technology really only involves issues of officer safety or citizen safety," Slinkard said. "More specifically, as it would relate to special threat situations, where it might be beneficial for a law enforcement officer to have a better look at a scene where possibly we have something like a barricaded suspect, a hostage situation, something potentially life-threatening, and before we send in a group of officers that could potentially be in harm's way, if we could have a better view of that dangerous situation we’re about to go into, then obviously we would want to take advantage of any officer safety technology. That's really where our focus would be. There are several units that could use this technology, but only in limited circumstances."
According to Matt Simpson, senior policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas, that's the way law enforcement agencies should appropriately use drones.
"The use should be narrow," Simpson said. "What HPD is suggesting sounds like a good idea. Drone technology is well-suited to this catch-all gathering of information, and we want to avoid targeting civilians who aren't doing anything wrong. Having a targeted use is a far better proposal."
While Slinkard narrowed potential instances where drones may be useful to "special threat" situations — which he also said could include suspicious packages or incidents in a bayou or waterways — as of right now, it remains unclear how liberally or conservatively HPD would apply that "special threat" tag. Should the department decide to build a drone program, Slinkard said, HPD would be sure to go through an "open and transparent process," from purchasing drones to creating policies and procedures for their use.
However, HPD initially seemed reluctant to discuss the details of its drone research. We first asked if the department was looking into drones in early February, and while HPD spokesman Kese Smith did confirm that HPD had been researching drones for about a month, he declined to go into specifics.
We then filed an open records request asking for communications regarding drone research, and we were told by Jeff Monk of HPD's open records division that our request would likely not yield the results we were looking for, yet would somehow also be too large to process (even after we narrowed the request). It wasn't until this week that HPD made Slinkard available for comment.
It is unclear why HPD did not provide Slinkard for comment when we first asked about the department's drone research more than a month earlier. If it was this difficult to get a sense of HPD's early drone research, then it doesn't exactly indicate HPD will be particularly forthcoming and transparent should it decide to establish a drone program in the future.