In the wake of a recently implemented state law that puts additional transparency on drone use, the Faribault City Council has revisited and approved a policy that will bring greater transparency to the drone program.
As noted by Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, the city already approved the drone regulation months ago, after the Cannon River Drug Task Force acquired the new drone in partnership with other local law enforcement agencies.
However, the drone regulation bill required a public hearing on drone use before any policy could be implemented. As a result, Faribault and other neighboring agencies have moved to codify their policy over the last several months. The drone regulation bill, passed by the Legislature as part of a broader data practices omnibus bill and signed by Gov. Tim Walz in May, is one of the first laws in the nation to provide concrete regulation on the new technology.
Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn, the current president of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, said his organization didn’t send out any draft regulatory framework for departments looking to adapt their policies to the new law.
Still, agencies like Faribault have been forced to pass new regulatory frameworks, which generally vary little from locality to locality. In Rice and Le Sueur counties, this change has come just months after the original drones were purchased.
Owatonna, on the other hand, has had a drone of its own for nearly three years now. Capt. Eric Rethemeier noted that it’s still the only jurisdiction in Steele County with its own drone, but lends it out to the Sheriff’s Department and other agencies when need for it arises.
Under the new law, enforcement agencies are generally required to apply for a warrant if they wish to use a drone, and only licensed operators are allowed to use the drone. The city of Owatonna has invested in training, and will soon have three operators qualified to use the drone.
The ACLU-backed state law initially invoked concerns among Minnesota law enforcement, who raised concerns that an overly burdensome regulatory framework could leave officers disinclined to use drones at all, even in circumstances where they could be a lifesaving tool.
After painstaking negotiations, the version eventually approved by state lawmakers included a variety of exceptions to the warrant requirement, relieving some concerns. Bohlen assured the Faribault City Council that if a drone were to be needed for public safety, there would be no delay.
“When it’s life emergency and exigency, we’ll have it right away,” he said. “If the Drug Task Force is executing a search, and concerned somebody is armed or going to hurt the officer, they have to apply for a search warrant.”
Notably, the law stipulates that any data collected on anyone other than the intended target must be disposed of after seven days unless it shows criminal activity. Other data collected by a drone is strictly public and must be given to the state as well.
Bohlen and other law enforcement officials throughout the area say that no criminal situation involving a drone has arisen. The drone has only been used twice by the Faribault department — once after reports that a person had jumped off a bridge, and once during protests in late May.
While the city has access to the drone, along with other departments across the region, it’s primarily the Cannon River drug task force’s drone. Task force Commander Paul LaRoche said that for a variety of public safety agencies, the drone has been a big help.
“It’s been well received and it’s been a good tool for quickly finding people, or for officer safety reasons,” he said. “Officers don’t have to go into a bad situation and it can be resolved.”
LaRoche said that it’s important to have the regulatory framework in place, but that local departments haven’t run into any issues with criminal cases. Instead, it’s proven a powerful tool, helping with everything from training to finding missing children.
Drones have also been used quite prominently to help firefighters combat large-scale fires, and the drone is available for local fire departments to use as well. However, Faribault Fire Chief Dustin Dienst said that it’s rare for a local department to have a fire of that size.
Still, Dienst said that fires for which a drone could be useful do occur from time to time, and a drone has been called out at least once already for a local fire. While the department doesn’t have a licensed operator, Dienst said that generally wouldn’t be an issue.
“If we had a call where we needed it, law enforcement would be a part of it anyway,” he said. “I was hoping we would be able to have one but it makes more sense to have it where all of us can use it.”