VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — Drone technology which gives law enforcement a better vantage point and a new law, recently signed by the governor, expands its use.

What You Need To Know

  • New law gives Florida law enforcement more options to view crime scenes, collect evidence

  • The change could keep both officers and citizens safer, Volusia's sheriff says

  • The use of drones means agencies don't always have to send officers, sheriff says

  • Sheriff downplayed privacy concerns, said he must approve drone use in Volusia

With the passage of Senate Bill 44, which garnered support from the Florida Associations of Police Chiefs and Sheriffs, law enforcement and government agencies can do more with their drones, including collect evidence from crime scenes and traffic crashes.

“The Florida Police Chiefs Association applauds Sen. Wright and Rep. Giallombardo for sponsoring, and Governor DeSantis for signing, Senate Bill 44. Drones make the work of law enforcement officers significantly safer and easier. Whether saving time responding to and assessing a scene, or expanding situational awareness through an aerial vantage point, particularly for smaller agencies that cannot afford other aerial assets, drones leverage efficiencies in a time of diminishing resources. SB 44 does just that, all while maintaining public accountability and safeguarding privacy.”
— Jennifer Cook Pritt, executive director, Florida Police Chiefs Association

They can also surveil crowds of 50 people or more.

According to Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood, that change might keep his officers and those they are protecting alike safer.

“We don’t have to put resources, don’t have to put boots on the ground in the building,” he said. “You send a drone in to do the work.”

Since 2017, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office has been amassing drones after a private donor from Spruce Creek gifted 10 high-end drones to the agency.

Soon, they were looking to neighboring counties, like Polk and Orange, to craft policy and learn how to intermesh their SWAT team with drone work.

Their fleet of now 20, with 24 certified pilots, is manageable. Meanwhile, flying the drones for everything —- from sweeps of a Publix grocery store after a bomb threat, to surveying DeLand for tornado damage —- is less expensive than maintenance and flight of their helicopter, which Chitwood said comes in at $2.1 million per year.

But, when it comes to law enforcement’s increased drone use, others are raising concerns about what it might mean for the average citizen.

“It raises the specter of some pretty serious First Amendment and privacy concerns,” said Kirk Bailey, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida's political director.

Bailey argued that while drones are undoubtedly helpful to law enforcement, they could have a chilling effect upon free speech, dissuading those who come out to protest and assert their rights.

“Under Senate Bill 44, they can be monitored by this technology,” Bailey said. “And it’s really unclear both the extent of the monitoring, what the information gathered will be used for. I think you would have second thoughts about whether or not you’re going to go to that rally. And I think it becomes even more intense when you’re talking about marginal or at-risk communities. “It’s a much more intimate tool, if you will. They can fly it closer. They can fly it into narrower areas … that they cannot get with a helicopter.”

According to Bailey, constitutional protections protect individuals from actions by the state. In the case of surveillance by drones, police are the state.

“Those differences mean, of course, law enforcement should have greater restrictions on it,” Bailey said. “They can use that technology in a much more invasive way than a private individual could.”

Chitwood acknowledged the concerns civil liberties groups have expressed but explained that agency leaders have control over when it’s used.

“We’re not spying, we’re trying to use this in real time, actionable things,” Chitwood said. “I think there’s accountability. … Our argument is, if I can get a drone up there, I can identify who the agitators in the crowd are. That’s why I think the legislation spells out, when it comes to protest, I have to give written authorization to my folks to use it. You have to keep it on file and keep the video.”

The ACLU of Florida said that though a requirement was added that put standards in place to protect individuals’ rights, the language is so broad, it could lead to a patchwork of policies.

The best steps that citizens can take to protect their rights, Bailey said, is engage in policy debate.

“With Florida passing its legislation, it’s going to contribute to a larger, national discussion that’s going on,” he said. “We’re going to see more and more debates about drones and the use of this technology. I think as we learn more, we’ll be able to improve how it gets implemented."