GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — You will soon see Grand Rapids police drones flying high in the sky.
After months of debate, the Grand Rapids City Commission approved $100,000 to purchase eight drones for the police department during its Tuesday evening meeting.
The commission’s fiscal committee unanimously approved the funding Tuesday morning. The city commission’s final vote was the plan’s last remaining hurdle.
The Grand Rapids Police Department said the drones will be ready to go about a month from now. Chief Eric Winstrom said they will be used at traffic crashes, search and rescues, searches for suspects, crime scene investigations and standoffs.
On Tuesday morning, a Kent County Sheriff’s Office drone was called in to help with a standoff in Grand Rapids’ Belknap Lookout neighborhood, where a person going through a mental health crisis initially refused to give himself up to police. The man was ultimately taken into police custody unharmed.
“We (had) a safe outcome for that individual who’s been going on the roof, different windows,” Winstrom said Tuesday morning. “We’re able to follow him (using the drone) and make sure the entire neighborhood is safe.”
The city will not allow police to use drones for random surveillance or weapon deployment.
With GRPD still short on staff, Winstrom said the drones could focus on one call, allowing more officers to respond to another situation.
In an interview with News 8 Tuesday afternoon, 2nd Ward Commissioner Milinda Ysasi also pointed out the benefit of faster officer response times and added the technology can keep the community safe.
“There are situations where it would be beneficial and (it seems) to me would actually reduce the harm to community and also reduce the harm to our staff, to our officers,” she said.
In multiple public hearings over the last few months, members of the community spoke out against the proposal over privacy concerns. Ysasi said the city’s Office of Oversight and Public Accountability, created in August 2019 to serve as a liaison between law enforcement in the community, will learn about each of the drone’s flight paths and share those with city leaders. The office will also investigate any complaints from the community.
“It will be monitored,” Ysasi said.
Smaller police agencies in West Michigan, like Wyoming and Kentwood police, are already using drones.
“I got phone calls from some towns I had never heard of in the Upper Peninsula with single-digit officers that use drones and have for some time,” Winstrom said.
“We are a city that is growing,” Ysasi said. “I don’t think we do something because other cities are doing it, but there is precedent for the investments a city our size makes.”
Ysasi also said the drones could be useful in any active shooter situation, someone experiencing a mental health crisis and even water rescues.
The drones will not have artificial intelligence or facial recognition technology. Carlton T. Mayers II, the special advisor for public safety for the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP, which helped write the city’s drone policy, said that’s important because facial recognition technology has been shown to disproportionately misidentify communities of color.
“A couple of weeks ago, there was an African American woman who was wrongfully arrested by the use of facial recognition technology by the Detroit Police Department,” Mayers said. “There is a high likelihood for adverse disproportionate impact on Black people, on Latinos, etc.”
Mayers said preventing those outcomes starts with preventing the use of the technology, as GRPD’s drone policy will do.
“Having those guardrails in place is better than not having them in place,” Mayers said. “My position is thank goodness in place we made those changes when we did.”
Mayers said he understands the police department’s reasons for using drones now, like staffing shortages. But he worries the technology will be unnecessary in the future and wants the city to make the policy temporary.
“That’s all I’m worried about,” Mayers said. “Once that happens and they’re able to staff and engage in the community the way they envisioned initially, do you still need these drones? I think there needs to be a plan put in place to essentially discontinue the use of surveillance technologies. There needs to be an expiration date.”