What would York City Police do with a drone? The City Council wants to know

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York City Police want a drone and have a plan to use it, but the question of whether the City Council will allow it remains up in the air.

If the proposal had been approved, $40,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funding would have been used to purchase a drone for the city's police department.

Instead, that money — and $200,000 that would have been used on the city's ShotSpotter program — was removed from a City Council motion on ARPA funding for city programs on March 1 before final passage.

"It may be delayed but not denied," City Council President Sandie Walker said at the meeting.

Walker said that Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow is working on creating a think tank of community members, including employees and residents, to discuss and review policies and address concerns.

>>Please consider subscribing to support local journalism.

Muldrow did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The York City Police Department has created a draft policy outlining what the unmanned aircraft system would be used for.

The drone would have multiple uses for both the police and fire departments, according to Mayor Michael Helfrich. One of those would be assisting with the dirt bike problem that has been plaguing York for years.

"With the unmanned aircraft, we can follow them without endangering them or endangering other drivers, try to utilize that information to then confiscate the vehicles or take some kind of action to improve the safety of our streets," Helfrich said at the March 1 council meeting.

Other uses outlined in the policy include search and rescue, fugitive apprehension, assisting with fire ground operations, demonstrations and public relations, and scene documentations.

The drone will not be used for routine aerial patrol, according to the policy.

In addition, if the drone is to be used to collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing in a manner that may intrude on "reasonable expectations" of privacy, a search warrant will be obtained before making the flight. 

Lt. Dan Lentz, spokesperson for the city police department, said a specific model of drone has not been decided upon. The designated operator has also not yet been determined.

In nearby Dauphin County, a drone was purchased in 2018 and has been in use to search for missing persons and assist in gaining tactical information.

More:York City officials approve several police measures — but not the drone

Dauphin County press secretary Brett Hambright said the drone is still in use today and has been an asset to the county.

"It was instrumental in a recent barricaded gunman situation, in that it provided 'eyes inside' the structure to assess everything for the safest approach to a resolution," Hambright said over email.

More:Coroner identifies teen dirt bike rider killed in York City crash

The drone has also been used to document outdoor crime and vehicle collision scenes and assist in a variety of searches. Those include missing children, people in the river and fleeing suspects.

More:'Each side is claiming victimization': Tensions continue to mount at York City Council

"I look forward to the discussion," Walker said. "I can see why there were concerns and so what I think Commissioner Muldrow is proposing will help us hash out some of those concerns and then also some of the support that is there." 

Among the other uses for a drone would be finding lost citizens or illegal items that suspects may have tossed onto a roof while fleeing. The fire department could use it to look into a building and assess what's happening, Helfrich said. 

In addition, the drone would have a payload application to carry things. That might include a rope to be brought out to someone who was stuck in Kiwanis Lake, for example.

More:WellSpan, York City Police to dedicate four officers to York Hospital, other facilities

Drones have become increasingly popular among police departments. Digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation estimates at least 1,172 departments across the country use at least one drone.

The American Civil Liberties Union lists drone usage as an issue of note, saying the use could have both great effects and great concerns. 

More:Juvenile shot as spate of violence in York City continues

"Uniform rules should be enacted to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government," the ACLU's website states.

Helfrich said he's still working on gathering public input through a survey that asks about a variety of potential solutions for tackling crime in York City, which include the possibility of a surveillance camera system and the drone.

More:York City mayor wants more input on surveillance cameras

"Our specific purposes are for targeted purposes. So not for the daily surveillance of citizens," Helfrich said in an interview. "I understand concerns with privacy, and I understand concerns with potential changes once things get into place."

The citizens of York, Helfrich said, should support the city when things go well and criticize it when things go poorly.

"I would look to the policy and look to our purposes, and judge us and judge the use of tools based on that," Helfrich said.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.