If Pigs Could Fly

How the Northampton Police Department got drones and nobody even bothered to shrug  


Will Meyer

The following is the story of the Northampton Police Department’s Drone program, which has received virtually no critical scrutiny from the press beyond a few puff pieces. The police acquired their first drone in late 2016 and started using them in April 2017, according to The Gazette. Not long after the police started flying drones, Chief Jody Kasper floated a proposal to install municipal surveillance cameras in downtown Northampton. After issuing the proposal, the community and the city council resisted Kasper’s plan and passed an ordinance limiting municipal surveillance cameras. But there was no outcry, or even discussion, over the NPD’s drone purchases. What happened?

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On October 15th, 2013, Shawn Musgrave submitted a records request to the Northampton Police Department. Musgrave, who at the time worked for the organization MuckRock which specializes in FOIA requests, wanted to know if 1) the agency owned or had access to drones; 2) if they had used them; 3) if so, what vendor(s) they had acquired them from; 4) what flights they had been on; and 5) what rules or regulations governed their use. The police didn’t respond to his initial request. After more than three years and 80 follow-up emails, he finally got a response.

In a letter dated November 28th, 2016, Chief Jody Kasper responded to Musgrave’s request, writing, “As of this date the Northampton Police Department does not own or operate drones. Therefore, we do not have any of the associated paperwork including the above listed items.”

Technically the Northampton Police Department didn’t operate drones at that time, but the day Kasper penned the letter responding to Musgrave’s request, they purchased one. According to documents obtained by The Shoestring via a records request, the NPD purchased its first drone on November 28th, 2016—on the same day Musgrave sent his 80th follow up email.  Further, although the letter was dated November 28th, Kasper didn’t send it to MuckRock until 9:41 am on December 1st, the day the drone arrived (from Amazon), according to a timestamped screenshot provided to The Shoestring from MuckRock.

Musgrave had explicitly requested information relevant to the acquisition of police drones, including communications between the police department and the drone vendors, information which, according to Kasper, didn’t exist on November 28th. Kasper, who has been praised as a champion of transparency, told The Shoestring: “I have no responsibility to wait for future records to be produced before responding to an inquiry.”

It is worth noting that Musgrave had initially sent his request to Chief Sienkiewicz and NPD Records Supervisor Jane Lawnicki. According to Kasper, in an email to The Shoestring, she didn’t receive Musgrave’s request until November 28th, 2016, after MuckRock sent the request to her—not Sienkiewicz. But in an email to The Shoestring, Lawnicki, who is still the NPD Records Supervisor, wrote that: “Between the years of 2013 and 2015 I forwarded these requests to Chief Sienkiewicz. What he did with these requests I do not know. I do not recall my response for these requests once Chief Kasper became chief.” It is also worth noting that when The Shoestring submitted our request regarding drones, we only submitted it to Records Supervisor Lawnicki, not to Kasper. What happened to Musgrave’s follow-ups between 2015, after Kasper became the Chief, and 2016, when she finally responded, is hard to know.

The episode involving this records request demonstrates the lack of transparency around drones—a theme with which the community members who spoke to The Shoestring are becoming concerned.

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According to our records request, the Northampton Police Department currently owns three drones manufactured by DJI—a Chinese drone manufacturer that has recently announced a collaboration with Axon, a “Smart Weapons” company, to expand offerings for law enforcement.

After the NPD bought their aforementioned initial drone—a DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter, in November for $1,209.99—the police bought two more in May and June of 2017. The first, which was purchased on May 16th, is a DJI Inspire 1 v2.0, procured from Amazon for $2,999. And the final drone, a DJI Spark, was purchased on June 4th from Gresco for $878. The most expensive and impressive piece of NPD drone equipment, however, is the thermal imaging attachable camera, purchased on May 30th for $5,175, to be used “for search and rescue,” according to an email between Kasper and Mayor Narkewicz, where he approved Fire Department funds to be used for the purchase.

The drones, in many instances, have thus far been used for pretty benign purposes. One Gazette columnist who participated in the Citizen Police Academy said that the drones are used “to look for missing children and old folks who have dementia,” though it’s unclear if that has happened. According to The Gazette, the first reported police drone flight was conducted  on April 6th, 2017, to look for two deer that had escaped from an enclosure at Look Park. The drone didn’t find the deer. (It is worth noting that police have long been used in searching for—and sometimes even killing—escaped non-human animals.) Later that same month the drone was used to assist firefighters in fighting a fire. In another incident, a South St. resident told me he recently saw a police drone surveying a car accident outside his window.

Perhaps most concerning is that the NPD flew a drone over demonstrating protestors at Northampton’s “March for Our Lives” in March. According to an email from Chief Kasper, “Officers on the ground in front of City Hall had observed people on the rooftops and were concerned about potential threats to those attending the event.” She said the officers put the drones up in up in air “for ten minutes” and the people on the rooftops were “ruled out as threats.” Kasper wrote, “This is an excellent example of how we use [drones] for crowd security and safety.”

“I think the current use is benign,” City Councilor At-Large Bill Dwight told The Shoestring. “It actually makes sense for someone lost in the woods, accident surveillance, hazmat response stuff. I think those are not inappropriate uses for these things.” But, he said, “the fact that [drones] can be misused for surveillance makes me feel real squishy, and not happy.” Sarah Field, a community member who was critical of the NPD’s surveillance program, added that “Drones are particularly egregious precisely because of their mobility—even when used for purportedly benign purposes such as traffic management, drones will still be capturing detailed footage of people in the surrounding areas.”

Through our records request, The Shoestring obtained the NPD’s internal drone policy, which I shared with Kade Crockford, who is the director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Program. Crockford said it was good that they even have a policy at all, noting that the Boston Police Department started flying drones without one. The policy, Crockford said, has some good points. For example, it outlines specific uses for drone use; mandates a record of each drone flight; states that drones cannot be weaponized; and even has a clause about getting a warrant for flights used in criminal investigations.

However, there are some problems too. For starters, the specific uses that the drone policy outlines, when interpreted all together are somewhat vague, and could be used to monitor first amendment activity. While “search and rescue” is pretty straightforward and scene documentation (to document a crime scene or car accident) makes sense, the clause about situational awareness —“To assist Incident Command in understanding the nature, scale, and scope of an incident and/or for planning and coordinating an effective response.“—is a little fuzzy. Further, the most concerning use is “visual perspective”: “To provide an aerial visual perspective to assist officers in providing direction for crowd control, traffic incident management, and temporary perimeter security,” which made Crockford think they might be “contemplating using drones to police protests.” The final use is “tactical deployment,” for emergency situations: “hostages and barricades, support for large tactical operations, and temporary perimeter security situations.”

Crockford highlighted how the policy addresses getting a warrant. The clause reads that “if the [drone] will be used in a manner that may intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy, the agency will obtain a search warrant prior to conducting the flight.” “That is a pretty confusing framework,” Crockford said, since “it relies on the police department’s own definition of what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy.” They concluded that “It should be very clear in the policy that if the Northampton police department ever uses the drone in a criminal or intelligence investigation, that they get a warrant first.”

The drone policy didn’t have a clear data retention policy, instead it referenced another NPD policy (S200 Records Maintenance) that deals with records. The Shoestring obtained this policy, which was originally drafted in 2000, and doesn’t mention drones at all. Additionally, the records policy doesn’t mention the deletion of records ever and, it seems, keeps them indefinitely. All data collected from drone flights is likely stored forever.

“I think the policy certainly could be tightened up,” Dwight remarked, speaking to some of its shortcomings. “We don’t make policy or law for individuals who exist currently, we do it for whomever will, at any point, preside over these systems.”

“The police department’s policy doesn’t prohibit the use of facial recognition technologies and does not prevent the police department from sharing any captured footage with ICE, Homeland Security, or the FBI,” Field said, echoing a concern that Crockford had. “As Jody Kasper acknowledged during the surveillance debate last fall,” Field noted, “there is absolutely nothing the Northampton PD could do to prevent these agencies from accessing surveillance footage captured by the police department.” Bill Newman, the Western Massachusetts attorney for the ACLU, shared her concern, saying that Northampton residents were “justifiably outraged” at the notion that NPD surveillance footage could get into the hands of federal agencies.

“The drone is just a floating surveillance camera,” said Jennifer Fronc, a UMASS Historian who specializes in surveillance. “Northampton Police tactics and strategy are completely out of sync with the reality of life in Northampton,” Fronc said, referencing the surveillance cameras and the community outcry over the routine purchase of “tactical equipment,” aka riot gear. She wondered whether or not the NPD needed drones at all.

The only reason the surveillance camera discussion was different, Newman noted, was because there had been a resolution and an ordinance that attracted press and community attention. “But in the absence of an ordinance or resolution coming before the city council there often is no standard process for examining the proposals themselves,” he said. Since the drones were purchased with normal police operating budgets, and approved by Mayor Narkewicz, according to Dwight, there was no mechanism to notice them—let alone have a discussion about them. Mayor Narkewicz didn’t return two emails about the NPD’s acquisition of drones.

Many suggested during the surveillance debate, including Ward 2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell and Chamber of Commerce president Suzanne Beck, that no law was needed to restrict surveillance cameras since the council had the power of the purse—the ability to approve expenditures. Newman disagreed, and thought the drone purchases were a perfect example as to why. “One thing that the consideration of the downtown surveillance camera proposal demonstrated is the inadequacy of the city’s budget process for debating and resolving an important policy,” he said.

Likewise, Kasper elected to have a community discussion about the surveillance cameras. There was no conversation about drones. When asked why there were no meetings or forums on drones, Kasper didn’t comment, but did confirm that no such event took place.

Newman thought there should be more transparency in the process. “I think that it would have been a better process if there had been a robust public consideration about the drones, the reasons for their purchase, how they would be used, and how and why the internal regulations were drafted as they were. I think that that kind of transparency would have been helpful in building confidence in the process, the use of that potentially highly intrusive technology and, hopefully, the restrictions on, and protections from, their use.”

Field agreed, noting that she hopes the “City Council and other Northampton officials will adopt a version of the CCOPS-M model legislation that has been crafted by the ACLU.” The CCOPS-M legislation would require public notices and community input on police acquisition of surveillance and/or militarized equipment.

“I’m actually for community input on this,” Dwight said. “How that manifests, through what mechanism that happens, that remains to be seen. It needs to be worked on and considered.”

7/23 UPDATE: This story has been updated to note that a drone was flown over the March for Our Lives protest in March 2018.


Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring.

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