INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana police agencies interested in expanding their investigatory toolkit with unmanned aerial vehicles are moving slowly amid concerns about privacy and safety.
The Greenfield Police Department bought a drone last summer and has used it once to acquire overhead pictures of a traffic accident. But the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is holding off until the rules of drone use are clear.
"We need something that clarifies the expectations of the public and meets the needs of public safety while still protecting the public and their civil rights and privacy," said City-County Councilman Zach Adamson, who has drawn up a resolution creating a study committee to develop rules for drone use.
Adamson told The Indianapolis Star he's consulted Public Safety Director Troy Riggs but is looking for a Republican to co-sponsor the resolution before presenting it to the full council.
"The real issue is there aren't any real concrete regulations relating to drones right now," Adamson said. "That poses a number of issues and hazards for the public at large. You might be in a space where you would think you might have a reasonable amount of privacy. Then you look outside your 23rd-floor apartment building and see someone spying on you with a drone."
Police say drones could help protect SWAT teams and assist with crowd control and in crash investigations. But civil-rights groups say they also could be used to illegally collect evidence.
Drones can range from handheld devices used by hobbyists to 27-foot-long Predators used by the U.S. military.
The devices are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which had authorized 545 agencies to use them by the end of 2013.
Les Dorr, an FAA spokesman in Washington, D.C., said police must inform the FAA how, where and when they intend to use drones to ensure there's no public safety risk.
Civil libertarians worry that the use of drones could lead government to abuse its power and say their use must be targeted.
"Drones cannot be used to collect bulk information that could be misused or storehoused for years," said Jane Henegar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. "Police agencies must be upfront with lawmakers and the public as to how and when drones are used and how information collected is used."
Henegar said she doesn't oppose the use of drones by police if citizens' rights are respected.
"Technology is awesome. It has added incredible quality and potential to our lives," she said. "But there's always a potential that the power of technology can be misused."
Riggs said it's likely just a matter of time before Indianapolis acquires drones.
"We know the drones are here to stay," he said.
Indiana State Police also are holding off but expect to revisit the issue. Capt. Dave Bursten said state police might start using the devices in the future to document crime sense and produce training videos.
Greenfield police Maj. Derek Towle said the drone and camera it purchased in 2013 was "very effective" in a crash investigation. But broader use likely will wait.
Indianapolis police Officer Ron Shelnutt, who used a personal drone recently to shoot aerial video of the funeral procession of slain IMPD Officer Perry Renn, said he understands the concerns.
"If you really want to use this technology," he said, "you have to be extremely respectful of everyone's privacy rights."