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Privacy issues take center stage in Pullman drone discussion

This September 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members. (Lance Bertolino / Associated Press)
This September 2011 photo provided by Vanguard Defense Industries shows a ShadowHawk drone with Montgomery County, Texas, SWAT team members. (Lance Bertolino / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – How to ensure privacy remains a major consideration for the Pullman Police Department, as it refines its policies and procedures for the use of aerial drones.

Speaking to about a dozen people at a public forum Wednesday, Police Chief Gary Jenkins noted the department expects to use drones in a variety of situations, including search-and-rescue missions, traffic control, documentation of outdoor crime scenes and major traffic accidents, tactical reconnaissance and deployment, weather reconnaissance and to assist the Pullman Fire Department with firefighting coordination and tactics.

Absent a court warrant or some type of emergency, however, he said the drones won’t be used to record images where someone would have “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as in their home or yard.

“The use of drones would be for specific missions, not for general surveillance,” Jenkins said. “We might use them a few times a month, or three to four times a week, depending on the need.”

Wednesday’s meeting was hosted by the Pullman League of Women Voters. It was the second of three meetings the department will hold to gather public input before finalizing its drone policies.

Washington Rep. Joe Schmick, who represents Pullman and the rest of the 9th Legislative District, wondered what will happen if the drone picks up evidence of a crime that’s unrelated to the specific mission. He also wondered exactly how “reasonable expectation” was being defined.

“That’s such a squishy term,” he said.

Jenkins agreed that it’s a gray area, but noted that reasonableness standards are fairly common in law enforcement. As for incidental crimes, he compared drones to the body cameras worn by Pullman police officers or the handful of surveillance cameras in the College Hill area.

“The intent of those cameras is to address serious crimes and public safety situations,” he said. “We’ve never used them for minor crimes, and drones would be the same. But if we capture images of an assault, we would use any evidence available to us to prosecute that crime. So in some cases, yes, drone images would be used for purposes other than the original mission.”

The department will need to secure a certificate of operation from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can operate any drones, Jenkins said. That certificate would include restrictions on when and how the aerial vehicles were deployed. The Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport would need to be notified whenever a drone is deployed, and the expectation is that there will be a public notification as well – although depending on the circumstances, that notification may at times come after the fact.

It’s also possible drones could be used to assist other agencies in the area, he said, although if that happens the department wouldn’t simply loan out a drone.

“If we assist another agency, we would provide an operator and a drone,” he said.

A draft copy of the department’s drone policies and procedures is available for viewing on the department’s website at

A final public input meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 17 in the Pullman City Council chambers.

“We’ll collect that information and put together the final policies, then determine what type of drone to purchase,” Jenkins said. “We hope to have something implemented before the end of the year.”


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