GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — They’ve become commonplace for police and other public safety agencies throughout West Michigan — small, camera-equipped drones buzzing the scene.
But not in Grand Rapids.
“We’re kind of late to the party. There’s a lot of much smaller agencies that already have drones,” said Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom.
Winstrom was selling his plan to the Grand Rapids City Commission’s Public Safety Committee Tuesday for the purchase of six drones and the training of up to 10 officers to pilot them with an initial price tag of about $100,000.
Winstrom demonstrated for the committee the various uses for the drones, from finding a suspect in the bushes to finding a child lost in the woods.
With police staffing an issue, the chief also said drones are a way to get officers back on the streets quicker.
“If we have a traffic crash closed off for four hours when we could do that whole traffic crash process in an hour with a drone and get those officers back on the street answering vital 911 calls, it’s important,” said Winstrom.
While the chief said the drones will not be used for surveillance, others see them as an invasion of privacy, especially in communities with large minority populations.
“We’re not in support of surveillance technology. But we know that these things have been here … they’re already here,” said Greater Grand Rapids NAACP President Cle Jackson.
Jackson helped write the city’s policy on use of police worn body cameras and other surveillance technology. That policy includes oversight by the city’s Office of Oversight and Public Accountability.
The same rules would apply to drones.
“I think the chief is focused on public safety. And so, we’ll see. Right? We’ll see. But again, I think the beautiful things is that we have the policy in place to monitor this,” said Jackson.
Tuesday was just the pitch.
Winstrom is promising a lot of public input will be gathered if the City Commission decides to move ahead with the program.
He’s convinced the public will get their questions answered.
“There’s a lot of common sense in this town. When it comes down to it, and when you really understand what we’re going to be doing with these drones and how that’s going to benefit the people of Grand Rapids, I think the city’s going to come together and say ‘yeah, it’s probably about time we utilize this technology for the benefit of the city,” said Winstrom.
The full City Commission could set a public hearing on the program for the end of April. That would be followed by a series of meetings to gather more public input before a final decision is made.