New bill broadens drone limitations for police, firefighters, and state agencies

SB 44 would allow police to use drones to monitor large crowds, collect evidence at crimes scenes and traffic crashes

Big changes could be coming to the way police, firefighters, and other agencies use drones at work. A bill just filed in Tallahassee would allow for police to use them to monitor large crowds and even collect evidence. News4jax reporter Ashley Harding joins us live this morning.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Up, up, and away! Many of us have heard a lot about drones since they first started gaining traction over the last several years. Big changes could be coming to the way police, firefighters, and other agencies use them at work.

A bill, SB 44, just filed in Tallahassee would allow for police to use them to monitor large crowds and even collect evidence, a use that is currently prohibited. News4Jax crime and safety expert, Ken Jefferson, is a retired police officer and he sees the benefits.

“They have proven to be very, very helpful to law enforcement,” Jefferson said.

If the proposal clears through Tallahassee, police could use them to manage traffic and collect evidence at crime scenes and traffic crashes. The bill, however, specifies traffic tickets could not be issued based upon footage or images captured by a drone. Florida’s current statute reads, “a law enforcement agency may not use a drone to gather evidence or other information.”

It goes on to read, Florida law does not prohibit the use of a drone:

  • To counter a high risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization if the United States Secretary of Homeland Security determines that credible intelligence indicates that there is such a risk.
  • If the law enforcement agency first obtains a search warrant signed by a judge authorizing the use of a drone.
  • If the law enforcement agency possesses reasonable suspicion that, under particular circumstances, swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence, or to achieve purposes including, but not limited to, facilitating the search for a missing person.

The proposal also calls for allowing police to use drones to get aerial views of crowds of over 50 people. Jefferson gave the example of how they could be helpful during protests that escalate.

“You can get above that,” Jefferson. “Again, the police are addressing what’s right in front of them. That drone can let them know that they need to go elsewhere, where they may be looting and maybe some other form of violence that they cannot see.”

News4Jax viewers were quick to share their opinions online. The reviews were mixed. One viewer wrote,

“I think it’s a good idea. The military uses drones to gather intelligence where soldiers can’t readily access. Police/security can’t be everywhere during fairs, beaches, etc. This would enable them to cover more ground.”

While some agreed, others did not. Another News4jax viewer’s comment reads,

“For crime scenes and traffic accidents, I can see where it would come in handy. As far as anything else, I feel it is going too far.”

Jefferson understands the concerns some may have and agrees privacy should always be protected. But also says as new technology evolves, it should be embraced.

“We can work out the kinks, the technicalities with regards to privacy,” Jefferson said. “But I don’t think that’s a reason or an excuse not to use these drones in a way that would be very helpful to protect the people of our county.”

State agencies would also have the go-ahead to use drones for surveying fire, flood, and natural disaster damage. If lawmakers pass the proposal, it would take effect in July. To see SB 44′s full text, click here.

To see Florida’s current statute on drone use, click here.

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.