Police hope to launch drones over Anchorage — with limits

A small drone with an externally mounted camera. (Flickr photo/Don McCullough)

The Anchorage Police Department wants to start using drones. But elected officials have some concerns.

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At a meeting of the Assembly’s public safety committee Wednesday, Captain Kevin Vandergriff presented draft policies on how police would like to use drones in Anchorage.

“Search and Rescue would be a primary,” Vandergriff said in a short interview after the meeting. “Evidence collection for major crimes and major crime scenes like fatality traffic accidents, for example. Also for tactical applications when we’re responding with a SWAT team for officer safety purposes. Those would be the three primary activities we’re interested in utilizing this technology for.”

According to Vandergriff, some core public safety functions can be done more efficiently by small unmanned aerial systems (UAS, as the devices are sometimes referred to) than by humans or equipment currently utilized in department procedures. Overhead cameras can reduce search times for missing and vulnerable adults down from hours to minutes, Vandergriff explained to the Assembly. Documenting a crime scene could similarly be expedited through the use of high-resolution overhead photographs.

In its proposals, APD introduced a limited set of functions for drones. The Department also laid out what they wouldn’t be used for, like warrant-less surveillance.

The idea for a limited roll-out by APD is to give the public time to acclimate.

“We want to utilize this new technology in a very conservative manner, all the time getting feedback from the public on how they believe we’re using the technolog,” Vandergriff said. “We want to be transparent when we use it. So we can put the public’s mind at rest, if you will, that this technology is not being abused by their police department.”

And the public is indeed skeptical. According to results from a poll conducted by Rasmussen and presented by APD, a slight majority of Americans, 39 percent, do not support police using drones, compared to 36 percent of those who do support law enforcement using them (25 percent were undecided).

Even though members of the Assembly were supportive of specific proposals, many said rules should come through new municipal laws.

Assembly vice-chair Forest Dunbar, who is a lawyer, believes there are a number of privacy concerns that merit a slower, more comprehensive legislative approach to the municipality’s drone policies.

“I think we want to strike that balance between the legitimate concerns of law enforcement and the potential for this technology, but also the real worries about privacy,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar was hardly alone among Assembly members expressing reservations. He expects the next step will be the Assembly working with the mayor’s administration on an ordinance that will solicit public testimony before coming up a vote.


Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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